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Charlotte Amalie
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HomeNewsLocal newsU.S. Civil Rights Commission Lends an Ear to V.I. Issues

U.S. Civil Rights Commission Lends an Ear to V.I. Issues

The Virgin Islands Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission presented the commission with an overview of issues for V.I. residents stemming from the territory’s political relationship to the federal government. (Screenshot from YouTube video)

For a U.S. citizen who hails from, say Ohio, there’s more than one way to lose the right to vote in a presidential election. You could become a convicted felon. Or you could just move to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Of course, if you’re a citizen born in the USVI, you can’t ever vote for president – unless you move stateside.

Meanwhile, if you are from a state and move to the British Virgin Islands, you can retain your right to vote. Or, if you are from, say Mexico, you can move to the state of Texas (or the state of Ohio, or the State of Whatever) and become a naturalized citizen with the right to vote.

Put that way, these well-known realities sound a bit ironic. And that is just the way St. Croix attorney Pamela Colon posed them to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last month when she made a formal presentation based on the initial report of the Virgin Islands Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission.

Colon chairs the advisory committee, which was created two years ago. Other members are Alan D. Smith, Michael Bornn, Nash Davis, Arlene Garcia, Antoinette Gumbs-Hecht, Kenny A. Hendrickson, and Molly Perry. States have been making reports to the commission for decades, but territories were only recently invited to do so.

The written, 60-page initial V.I. report has been public since early this year.

In her oral presentation, Colon told the commission that the V.I. advisory committee had decided to present “a 30,000-foot view” of the territory’s situation for its first report rather than zero in on one of the many civil rights issues facing its residents.

It took as its guide the 75-year-old introductory report by the Civil Rights Commission itself, issued in 1959, and which spoke of the tension then in the U.S. between those who wanted to extend the provisions and protections of the Republic to all citizens and those who wanted to limit it to cover only some.

“The Virgin Islands is still trapped in that tension,” Colon said.

Among concerns in 1959 were the disenfranchisement of Black citizens and restrictions on their travel, she noted. In 2024, V.I. residents – the vast majority of whom are Black – can’t vote for president and have very limited representation in Congress. They can’t travel from the island to the mainland without clearing Customs.

Although years ago the United Nations charged the U.S. with giving the Virgin Islands self-government, Colon said, still “we’re subjects of the U.S. Congress” which has approval over major changes to the territory’s governmental structure.

Speaking this week to the Source, Colon described her reception by the commission as “fantastic.”

The Civil Rights Commission has no authority to change laws or policy, but it has considerable influence over those who do.

Having laid the groundwork with the overview, the V.I. advisory committee to the commission can now focus attention on one or more aspects of the territory’s political relationship with the federal government as the topic of its next report.

The decision of the next topic will be a group determination, Colon stressed. But as for her personal preference, she said she is leaning towards support for a referendum on status.

The last such referendum was in 1992. Despite a rigorous education campaign, it failed to get much attention from the electorate.

Colon, who was relatively new to the territory then, indicated she was surprised by the lackluster response. In order even to continue in the process, a minimum of 50 percent of registered voters needed to participate in the initial referendum; “we only got 29 percent.”

She blames the turnout not on indifference, but on a lack of knowledge about the territory’s current political status and about its possible options for its relationship with the federal government. She noted that one of the committee’s recommendations in its first report is that the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs, which has oversight for territories, conduct a political status education campaign in the territory.

On a related matter, with the territory posed to hold its Sixth Constitutional Convention next year, that might also be a focus for the advisory committee.

But there are a myriad of other possible choices, including restrictions on social security benefits and limitations on federal funding programs, as well as the move to get a review of the so-called Insular Cases, which established the relationship between the U.S. and its overseas territories.

Colon said the committee will discuss and likely decide on the topic for its second report when it holds its next business meeting, which is scheduled 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Atlantic Standard Time on May 20. Meetings are open to the public and available on line.

To register to join the meeting click here.

The Commission’s April 19 meeting can be viewed on YouTube here. Colon’s presentation begins at about the 56-minute mark on the video. It also contains remarks from a representative of the Civil Rights Advisory Committee for Puerto Rico.

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