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HomeNewsLocal newsVirgin Islands’ Concerns Sent to U.S. Civil Rights Commission

Virgin Islands’ Concerns Sent to U.S. Civil Rights Commission

The U.S. flag and protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution don’t always travel together, according to a Virgin Islands report on inequities facing U.S. citizens in the territory. (Shutterstock image)

Public discussions of the inequities faced by U.S. citizens in the Virgin Islands have reached another level.

A local committee has released a report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, outlining the current political and practical status of the territory in its sometimes confusing and somewhat tortured relationship with the federal government and highlighting numerous ways in which Virgin Islands residents are short-changed when it comes to Constitutional protections.

The report is the first of its kind.

Although it received little public attention, the committee spent nearly two years of intense work gathering and sifting through information for the report.

Other territories are working on similar presentations — all at the invitation of the Civil Rights Commission. Simply having an airing by the commission suggests the possibility of some eventual corrective action.

The commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. It is charged with reporting to Congress and to the president about civil rights violations throughout the country. Since its inception, it has relied on advisory committees — one in each state and also one for the District of Columbia — for information about possible problems.

It wasn’t until 2022, following a request from Congress, that the Civil Rights Commission also formed advisory committees in each of the territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands.

That delay has been called out in the V.I. advisory committee’s report as another example of how the territories are often “forgotten” and treated as an afterthought when American policy is being formulated.

The report lists other instances of unequal treatment, most of them painfully familiar to V.I. residents, although, the report notes, they may be news to many U.S. citizens living outside the territories.

Chief among the concerns is that V.I. residents cannot vote for the U.S. president and do not have full representation in Congress; they have only one delegate and that representative may vote only in committee, not on the final passage of legislation.

Other concerns include:

  • Virgin Islanders’ birthright U.S. citizenship is not traced to the Constitution but to an Act of Congress, suggesting it could be revoked if Congress so chose
  • Although the territory receives considerable federal monetary assistance, it is excluded from some programs and has limited participation in some others
  • The V.I. government does not get all the federal excise taxes collected on its exports to the U.S. mainland — basically, petroleum and rum
  • Because the territory is deemed by Congress to be outside the U.S. Customs Zone, people traveling outside the territory must clear Customs and Immigration, a restriction not placed on citizens traveling from state to state

“We only have the illusion of self-determination or self-government,” not the reality, said Pamela Colon, a St. Croix attorney and the chair of the V.I. Advisory Committee.

Colon and the other committee members were appointed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Colon said she was contacted by the commission and invited to send in an application. The other committee members are Alan D. Smith, Michael Bornn, Nash Davis, Arlene Garcia, Antoinette Gumbs-Hecht, Kenny A. Hendrickson, and Molly Perry.

In gathering information for the report, the committee received technical assistance from the commission as well as testimony from some experts knowledgeable about the history of the territory’s political status and some people known for their advocacy of equal rights for territory residents.

“We learned a lot” from the public testimony, Colon said.

Expert testifiers cited in the report are St. Thomas attorney Judith Bourne, a longtime advocate of local rights and self-governance; Carlyle Corbin, a political advisor who has worked with numerous national and international organizations and with the V.I.’s Fifth Constitutional Convention; Malik Sekou, political science professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, and Neil Weare, a civil rights attorney and founder of the non-governmental organization Equally American which advocates on the national level for territorial rights.

Some information in the report also came from committee members, most specifically Colon and Perry.

Each of the territories worked independently and made their own decisions about how to formulate a report to the commission. Colon said the V.I. group decided to make its first report to the commission an overview of the Virgin Islands’ status. Future reports will hone in on specific problem areas.

There are multiple possibilities for focus, she said. There’s the treatment of U.S. military veterans in the territory, Social Security rules, Congress’ role in approving a V.I. territorial constitution, and many others.

The V.I. committee has not decided yet which items to tackle in future reports, and it will be guided by public input, Colon said. The committee plans to issue three more reports before its term ends in 2026. (Committee members were appointed in 2022 to a four-year term. Individual members can be reappointed for a second, four-year term.)

The initial report, released late last month, is 60 pages. It includes a “Table of Authorities” that lists 29 federal court cases, 10 U.S. treaties, and 14 federal statutes as reference items.

It also contains some political cartoons from the early 1900s when the federal government was deciding how to handle the far-flung territories it had recently acquired, some as spoils of war, the Virgin Islands through a purchase from Denmark.

The cartoons illustrate a racial bias that the report stresses played a huge and improper role in how the federal government decided to deal with the new territories. Insulting by any standards, the cartoons depict territorial residents as infantile, backward and uneducated, and incapable of caring for themselves.

The report highlights U.S. imperialism, suggesting that even the country’s name has been a misnomer almost from its beginnings. The United States of America became the “United States and Territories of America” just 47 days after the signing of the treaty that recognized the new nation in 1784. It was then that Virginia ceded its claims over the north of the Ohio River to the federal government, and the “Western Territory” was created.

Territories in the contiguous U.S. were each established with the anticipation that they would become states. But, with the exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii, off-shore territories were not given that path.

The report makes three recommendations to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights:

  • That it initiate a series of joint discussions with Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to “reference the civil rights concerns on a larger context.”
  • That the Commission recommend to Congress that the U.S. Interior Departments’ Office of Insular Affairs draft a proposal to Congress giving U.S. citizens in the territories the right to vote in federal elections and voting representation in Congress.
  • That the Commission recommend to Congress that it pass legislation “implementing the (U.S.) Constitution in full to all the territories.”

Colon urged residents to familiarize themselves with the report and to share their thoughts on civil rights in the territory. The committee is planning to sponsor a public forum in the near future, perhaps in conjunction with the University of the Virgin Islands.

She will formally present the report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at its business meeting on April 19. The meeting is open to the public and will be live-streamed at https://www.youtube.com/user/USCCR.

The report can be viewed on the Commission’s website.

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