A new advocacy group is debuting on Wednesday, and it’s aiming to raise awareness about how residents of U.S. territories are shortchanged in terms of political representation, federal benefits and self-determination.
“This is colonialism, plain and simple. It is time we call it what it is. It is time we confront colonialism,” reads Right to Democracy’s first press release.
The United States currently has five overseas territories: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.
Although there are important differences between the territories’ internal governance and relationships with Washington, they all face similar challenges related to their constitutional status.
“More than a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s about identifying our common ground,” said Adi Martínez-Román, co-president of Right to Democracy.
“We’re going to respect the differences between each of the territories and within territories — because there are very important differences even inside the territories themselves — to try to find those common ground solutions or strategies between us that agree that there is this colonial systemic change that needs to happen,” she added.
While all the territories currently have a voice in Congress, none of them have a voting presence in the body that ultimately decides their legal system.
That leads to wildly different levels of individual representation for the U.S. citizens or nationals in each territory. Puerto Rico, for instance, has one nonvoting resident commissioner representing around 3.2 million people, while the Northern Mariana Islands elect a nonvoting delegate to represent fewer than 50,000.
The territories’ histories are also divergent: American Samoa came under U.S. control as part of a partition deal with Germany in the late 19th century, Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded by Spain after the Spanish-American War, the Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark, and the Northern Mariana Islands took decades to transition from a trust territory of the United Nations to a U.S. territory.
According to the United Nations, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam are non-self-governing territories — essentially colonies — while Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands were removed from that list in 1952 and 1990, respectively.
Yet the territories share common issues such as uncertainty in funding for federal programs ranging from Medicare and Medicaid to emergency response for natural disasters.
And while the political status of the territories is often at the core of those issues, proposals to change status are usually as controversial as the problems they aim to solve.
“The challenges that people have in coming up with solutions is illustrative that people don’t really recognize that there’s a problem,” said Neil Weare, co-president of Right to Democracy.
“And if the United States as a country actually recognized that it had a colonial problem that was urgent to solve, then the possible solutions to that problem are much more creative and much more available,” Weare added. “But because the United States does not recognize there’s a colonial problem, finding a solution is very difficult.”
Right to Democracy’s co-presidents and co-founders are focusing on legal action and community building to build their advocacy group, seeking to create a coalition across all five territories and on the mainland.
The group is taking particular aim at the so-called “Insular Cases,” a series of court decisions that essentially grant Congress the ability to pick and choose which constitutional rights apply to residents of the territories.
The decisions, which rely heavily on openly racist language typical of the early 20th century to justify their conclusions, avoided Supreme Court review in October, though justices on either side of the ideological spectrum have expressed a desire to take on the issue.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor have panned the Insular Cases.
In 2022, Gorsuch issued a 10-page opinion calling for the Supreme Court to review and overturn the cases, which he wrote “deserve no place in our law.”
Still, the Court decided not to take on a case that could have led to review of the Insular Cases, Congress has not voted on resolutions to condemn the decisions and the Justice Department has actively defended the cases’ legal effects, if not the language behind them.
“Recognizing this as a cross-partisan cross-ideological issue, when you have conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch label this relationship as, quote, ‘American colonialism’ and write a dozen-page-long opinion condemning the insular cases as racist and colonial, demonstrates how this is an issue that its time has come in terms of engaging in a more serious way,” Weare said.
The group also aims to engage in “community lawyering,” building cases from the ground up, based on the needs of territorial residents.
“Traditional litigation is based on ‘We are the smart lawyers and the experts who know what the theory is and what should be argued in court in order to convince a judge,'” Martínez-Román said.
“Community lawyering is: We actually build the case with the participation of the client. It is centered on the client, and it promotes the community of the client to get involved in the litigation process. … Even the theory, the legal theory, is built together,” she added. “It’s fed by the actual meaning in the life of the clients. And there is more impact in terms of the community itself, as the community gets empowered by their building of knowledge of their rights, and being able to exert some political power and pressure over the public officials.”
Martínez-Román brings her work in participatory advocacy in Puerto Rico, working at a community level, to the new group, while Weare has worked on the national stage to bring attention to the broader territorial status issue.
Right to Democracy is in part funded by the Ford Foundation, according to Weare and Martínez-Román, and has contributed to a catalogue for an exhibit on U.S. overseas expansion at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery titled “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions.”
Updated: 3:50 p.m. ET