Our nation’s Founders never intended our country to work this way. Many of them, including Alexander Hamilton, who spent his formative years in my home of St. Croix, risked their lives to reject colonialism. They had experienced taxation without representation, and they wanted no part of it. They understood that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Read: Testing territorial limits
America has from its inception included U.S. territories, and the people who lived in those territories knew that the Constitution protected their rights. Those same people also believed in the promise of full political participation through eventual statehood.
That promise was broken after the United States began acquiring island territories in 1898. Bending to political pressure from President William McKinley and others who supported American imperial expansion overseas, the Supreme Court turned its back on our country’s founding ideals. In a series of highly fractured and controversial decisions known collectively as the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court invented an unprecedented new category of “unincorporated” territories, which were not on a path to statehood and whose residents could be denied even basic constitutional rights. Which territories the Court determined were “unincorporated” turned largely on the justices’ view of the people who lived there—people they labeled “half-civilized,” “savage,” “alien races,” and “ignorant and lawless.”
While other racist decisions from that era, including Plessy v. Ferguson, have long been reversed, the Supreme Court has yet to turn the page on the Insular Cases. Last summer, the Court expressed concerns over these cases—Justice Stephen Breyer called them a “dark cloud”—but stopped short of actually overruling them.
The ramifications of the Insular Cases go well beyond the ability of citizens in the territories to vote. We pay billions of dollars in federal taxes, and yet residents of U.S. territories are denied access to crucial federal support. Otherwise eligible citizens in the territories are denied Supplemental Security Income, leaving our most vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities to fend for themselves. Federal programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the child tax credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, are either capped or denied altogether.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 2017, further exposed the human costs of disenfranchisement. Of the approximately 3,000 deaths associated with these disasters, the overwhelming majority occurred after the storms had passed, showing the devastating consequences of an insufficient federal emergency response. And the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted once again the large health disparities between our residents and those of the states.