The St. Thomas Source: Civil Rights Groups Pen Letter Urging Biden to Condemn Insular Cases

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By Sian Cobb

A dozen advocacy organizations have sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking him to publicly condemn a series of Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases that inhibit residents of the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories from accessing certain constitutional rights and protections.

“The letter further urges Biden to condemn the colonial regime the Insular Cases continue to foster. The petition, which comes 125 years after the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, is an essential step in furthering Biden’s stated commitment to racial justice,” said Neil We are in a statement announcing the letter. He is co-director of Right to Democracy, a nonprofit that focuses on advancing equality and civil rights for the 3.5 million citizens living in U.S. territories, 98 percent of whom are racial or ethnic minorities.

The Insular Cases — a series of Supreme Court decisions made in the early 1900s after the U.S. began acquiring lands outside the continental U.S. — have been criticized for blatant language within them that reflects racist attitudes of the times and for treating residents in the newly established territories with fewer rights than stateside residents. For example, territory residents may not vote for president, have no Senate representation, only a non-voting delegate to Congress, and are denied equality in federal social safety net programs such as Supplemental Security Income.

“In 1898, Puerto Rico and Guam were acquired by the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War, with American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands to follow,” the letter to Biden states. “As we assess the relationship between the United States and its territories 125 years later, one conclusion is inescapable: they were colonies then and effectively remain colonies today. The people in the U.S. territories should have the same right to self-determination as people anywhere in the world. At present, they do not. We call upon you to put an end to this gross inequity,” it says.

Tuesday’s letter to Biden follows numerous previous requests by civil rights groups that the Justice Department stop its reliance on the Insular Cases in defending cases in court, including letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland from 14 civil rights and civil liberties organizations in February 2022, and an online petition last summer concerning the birthright citizenship case of John Fitisemanu and two other American Samoan nationals living in Utah who sought the right to full citizenship. The court ultimately declined to hear the case.


Along with Right to Democracy the letter is signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Puerto Rico, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Popular Democracy, Demos, the Human Rights Campaign, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“Ultimately, the racist legacy of the Insular Cases cannot be squared with the stated values of your Administration to support racial justice, equity, democracy, indigenous rights, and self-determination,” they wrote to Biden.

“The 3.6 million people living in the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands — overwhelmingly people of color — deserve better. This is also an issue for the territorial diasporas throughout the United States, which now exceed 6 million, with more than 2.5 million living in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia,” the letter states.

Alejandro A. Ortiz, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, stated the case more bluntly.

“The Insular Cases are firmly rooted in white supremacy, and still haunt the day-to-day lives of millions of people. The presumed inferiority of territorial residents is archaic, offensive, and racist. This is why, 125 years after the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, we are asking President Biden to condemn these cases. If dismantling systemic racism is truly among the president’s priorities, he must match rhetoric with action,” said Ortiz.


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