Virgin Islanders have been fighting for full United States citizenship rights for decades. The present question is whether a case making its way to the U. S. Supreme Court will give them the victory for which they have fought.
The case petitioning for a Supreme Court hearing has many friends, including popular comedian John Oliver, who dedicated a whole show to it.
On Monday, Supreme Court attorney Theodore Olson filed a brief before the Supreme Court in Tuaua v. United States, the case addressing birthright citizenship and whether the insular cases should continue to be relied upon to deny constitutional rights in U.S. territories.
Many believe these insular case precedents are based on old school colonialism and, more than likely, racism.
The petition before the court was brought by passport-holding Americans, born in American Samoa, who are denied recognition as U.S. citizens by federal statute.
Olson, who represents the Tuaua petitioners, said in a press release, “We hope that the Supreme Court will accept review to once again make clear that Congress has no power to turn off or redefine the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.”
Although this fight may be new to comedian Oliver, it is not new to Virgin Islanders. Virgin Islanders can recall that resident Edward Browne went on a hunger strike in 2004 to get voting rights for Virgin Islands residents. He carried his message to the Republican National Convention that year. His effort might have been noble but it gained no results.
However, through the years, efforts have brought results. Gaining citizenship through legislation was Puerto Rico in 1917, the Virgin Islands in 1927 and Guam in 1950. Congress approved a law granting people of the Northern Mariana Islands automatic citizenship in 1976.
But citizens in the territories still are denied many of the rights of residents born stateside.
Tuaua, along with four others born in American Samoa and the Samoan Federation of America, is defending his family’s right to citizenship. This case, being appealed to the Supreme Court, does not specifically address voting rights of Virgin Islanders but it could, in a broad interpretation, encompass them.
The argument in Tuaua v. United States is the Citizenship Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that “All persons born . . . in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States,” and that federal laws and policies that deny citizenship to people born in American Samoa violate this clause and are unconstitutional.
If this is found to be true then it would logically follow that those born in the U. S. Virgin Islanders should not be denied the right to vote for the president.
This filing is just the latest in efforts by the territories.
A press release from Neil Weare, president and founder of We the People Project, “An impressive and diverse array of academics, current and former territorial officials, and civil rights groups represented by top national law firms have filed a total of seven ‘friend of the court’ briefs asking the Supreme Court to grant review of a D.C. Circuit decision denying recognition of birthright citizenship in U.S. territories based on the controversial Insular Cases.”
In a skit last year, when the case was initiated, Oliver voiced, in a humorous fashion, his concerns about territories, where the per capita volunteering for the U.S. military is higher than the stateside average, are denied the right to vote. He further looked at laws that support this position; laws that state people in the territories belong to an “alien race” and they can’t understand “Anglo-Saxon laws.”
Weare’s press release says, “Last June, the D.C. Circuit held in an opinion authored by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, and joined by Senior Judges Laurence H. Silberman and David B. Sentelle, that the meaning of the Citizenship Clause was ‘ambiguous’ as to whether its guarantee of birthright citizenship applied in overseas U.S. territories.”
He said, “The panel’s opinion also broadly expanded the reach of the Insular Cases, a series of controversial Plessy-era decisions that were grounded in racial bias. In doing so, it held that rights recognized as ‘fundamental’ in other parts of the United States may not apply in so-called ‘unincorporated’ U.S. territories, a label created by the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases based on its view that these islands were populated by ‘alien races’ with ‘fierce, savage and restless people.’”
He continues, “The Supreme Court has the opportunity now to once again make clear that the Citizenship Clause means what it says and to finally turn the page on the Insular Cases, which are relics of another era.”
We the People Project is a nonprofit organization that advocates for equal rights and representation for the over 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories.
The press release also says, “Earlier this month, the Solicitor General filed a brief arguing against Supreme Court review, relying in significant part on an Insular Cases opinion by Justice Henry Billings Brown – author of Plessy v. Ferguson – that did not receive the support of a single other Justice.”