May 8, 2003 – President Bush signed an executive order on Thursday re-establishing a working group of federal agencies charged with coordinating U.S. policy regarding the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen was present at the White House for the signing ceremony. In a release, she noted that she had called on the president early in his administration to continue the working group started in the Clinton administration to coordinate the activities of federal agencies as they pertain to the territories.
"This is a very opportune time for the establishment of the Interagency Group on Insular Affairs for both Guam and the Virgin Islands, since both territories are facing financial crises," Christensen said. She said she had made that point to Interior Secretary Gale Norton while urging her "to convene the group as soon as we are prepared to discuss plans to resolve the crises."
Norton, whose department administers the federal government's relationship with the insular areas and who will chair the group, hailed the re-establishment of the IGIA. "I'm delighted that the president has demonstrated his appreciation and concern for the special issues faced by the territories," she said in a release from the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs.
President Clinton created the original IGIA by executive memorandum in 1999. With the end of his administration, the memorandum ceased to have legal effect, and so the group did not automatically continue into the Bush administration.
Norton, who also had asked the president to re-establish the IGIA, said his doing so "will enable the federal government to address the territories' unique concerns in a coordinated, efficient manner." The group will make recommendations to the president and other appropriate officials regarding issues impacting on the territories.
David Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for insular affairs, who was in the Virgin Islands last week, also attended the signing ceremony. He said that "policies designed for the 50 states may not fit properly in the territories. The IGIA will be able to spot those cases and recommend appropriate adjustments.".
As an example, he said, "people born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens," he said. "When Congress passed a law requiring all airport screeners to be U.S. citizens, it meant that American Samoans could not be airport screeners at their own airport. That problem has been corrected, but all of the territories have special issues that need to be taken into account."
Cohen, who heads the Office of Insular Affairs, which is responsible for developing and administering federal policy toward the insular areas, also said that "all of the territories are much poorer and less developed than the poorest states. Each territory faces unique issues arising from its remote location, its special legal status and its lack of resources."
The group will comprise the heads of each department in the executive branch and the heads of those other agencies that the secretary of the Interior designates, according to the Interior release. It will have an annual meeting to which the governors of the insular areas will be invited and will otherwise meet as appropriate. It also will consult with governors, delegates to Congress and other elected representatives from the insular areas, as well as with members of Congress.
Thursday's signing ceremony was held in conjunction with the celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage month.
Puerto Rico was not included in the original IGIA, nor is it included in the IGIA reconstituted on Thursday. Because of the commonwealth's special status, Puerto Rican issues, unlike those of the other territories, are administered not by the secretary of the Interior but directly by the White House.
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