Yauco, Puerto Rico, which located on the southern part of the island. Photo by Daniel Pederson.

The Problem With the Colonies

US Territories are treated like second-class Americans. Here’s an idea on how to change that.

Author’s Note: You will notice that I don’t mention statehood for Puerto Rico as an option. It is a viable and real option for the island, but my point here is to talk about the problem faced by all of America’s territories when it comes to representation and a way that can be remedied besides statehood.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, I was looking at it with special concern. This disaster was personal for me. My mother was born in Puerto Rico, born in Canovanas and growing up in Carolina, both suburbs of the capital city of San Juan. Mom moved to Michigan in the 1960s and met my Dad. I came along a year after their wedding in 1969. I grew up hearing my mother speaking Spanish with my uncles who had moved from the island to follow my mother in Michigan, and with mi abuela, my grandmother, who also moved to be close to her children.

My mother told me about her homeland and how they became American citizens in 1917 and how the island became a Commonwealth in the early 50s, and about the first elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, and how he helped the island become a shining star on the Caribbean. My mother and I tended to hope that one day, the island would become the 51st state. We were strong statehood supporters and were against the independence movement, which tended to use terrorism to get their point across.

I grew up with a sense that you could be a proud Puerto Rican and proud to be a part of the United States. We were not a mere colony, we were so much more.

These days I have to wonder if the island that is part of my heritage is really considered a part of the US or simply a mere colony that the overseers in Washington think of occasionally.

Puerto Rico, along with the Virgin Islands, Guam, the North Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and, to some extent, the District of Columbia are considered unincorporated territories of the United States. Their people are American citizens, but they don’t have representatives in Congress, save non-voting representatives. They also can’t vote for President. Congress and then-president Obama worked to create PROMESA, a legislative act that set up a Fiscal Control board to help lift Puerto Rico out of its fiscal crisis. So, a Congress Puerto Ricans didn’t vote for drew up a bill that became an act and was signed by a President they didn’t vote for. Think about that: 3.5 million people don’t have a voice in how to restructure their own collective finances. They have to rely on the good graces of the Legislative and Executive Branches. (The Washington Post has a great article that explains the problem of US territories in words and pictures.)

US Territories are very seldom thought of by the average American. NPR’s Code Switch cites a recent survey where only half of Americans even knew that Puerto Ricans were fellow Americans. This is what author Tiphanie Yanique said on National Public Radio about how people see her home of the Virgin Islands:

The United States has talked about us as if we are effectively a colony, which is that we are secondary. We are perhaps secondary types of Americans. Now, we do carry American passports in the Virgin Islands, but we don’t have federal representation.

We cannot vote for president for example. Our congresswoman, who — we vote for her — she cannot vote in Congress. So we really have no say. But I also think that this has to do with just the way that we are thought of in the national imagination as a place for a vacation and respite. And it’s a beautiful place. The Virgin Islands is as beautiful as everybody says.

It is a gorgeous, pristine, absolutely divine place. However, it’s a place where human beings also live. So, you know, when Americans travel to Europe, for example, they know that they’re traveling to Europe to engage with the cultural history. When people travel to the Caribbean, they are often traveling to avoid the human beings and to just engage in the beauty of the space.

It’s time for American territories to be heard, to be treated with more respect. They are Americans and they need to be treated as such.

Short of statehood, there is a way that gives the territories more of a voice than they do now. The answer lies in giving them real representation and the ability to vote for President.

Territories in Australia and Canada have limited representation in Canberra and Ottawa respectively. For example in Canada, each of the three territories have one member of Parliament each and one senator. So in the Yukon Territory, they send one MP to Ottawa as well as one senator. Australia’s Northern Territory has two MPs and two Senators. In each case the territory has representation in the federal legislature. No, the territories are not on equal footing with the states or provinces, but they at least have a voice in national affairs in a way that US territories don’t.

My own proposal would be that each US territory has one representative and possibly one senator. These representatives would have full voting privileges in Congress. All of the territories would be able to vote in Presidential elections and would get 2 electoral votes each. Also, all of the territories would have the same rights as states to declare bankruptcy (the late Senator Strom Thurmond had a role in stripping Puerto Rico of bankruptcy protection in 1984).

It’s past time that America’s territories be treated with some respect. These are Americans who have fought in our nation’s war and claim American citizenship just like someone from the mainland. It’s time that we start treating them as fellow Americans and not prized possessions from a long forgotten war.

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Dennis Sanders

Dennis Sanders

Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: churchandmain.org newsletter: https://churchandmain.substack.com/