Among my random possessions is an antique globe. It’s one of my favorite things. Parts of it are battered and illegible. There’s a dimple off the west coast of Mexico and its axis gets stuck when I rotate to the southern hemisphere.
I don’t know when it was made, but it was sometime between 1898, the end of the Spanish-American War, and 1945, the end of World War II. There is a Palestine but no Israel, and one Korea. The Caroline, Marshall and Marianas Islands are Japanese territories; the Philippines is part of the U.S. In between them all is a small dot, another U.S. holding: the island of Guam.
Hawaii captures the American imagination. Guam confuses it. As does Puerto Rico, the Northern Marianas and U.S. Virgin Islands. American Samoa is trickier, but I’ll get to that.
America owns islands that are not states, with a long history of legislative determinations and decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court.
And more than an occasional eyebrow-raising remark from members of Congress.
“My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize,” uttered Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson over a decade ago during a committee hearing about the proposal to relocate 8,000 Marines to Guam.
His office later clarified that he was “obviously” joking and expressing concern about the impact that such a buildup could have on a small island. It was April Fool’s Day, after all. (I recall watching the exchange on C-SPAN and wondering if he had developed dementia.)
To his credit, he can at least serve on committees. His colleague from the Georgia delegation, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the same Marjorie Taylor Greene who is not permitted to serve on any House committees, thrust herself – and Guam – back into the spotlight with her remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“We believe our hard-earned tax dollars should just go for America, not for what? China, Russia, The Middle East, Guam, whatever, wherever.”
She should have stopped at the Middle East.
Granted, we all say stupid things from time to time. I once read about an American expat in Hawaii. While such ignorance is appalling from a member of Congress, there’s nothing new about it.
On a regular basis, a prominent person will misunderstand a territory. President of the U.S. Virgin Islands. No foreign aid for Guam. And after every such gaffe comes a new round of explanations and surprise that America has such things.
Residents of U.S. territories (except for American Samoa) are U.S. citizens. Territories have legislatures and govern themselves, with strings attached to federal funding, of course. Since voting, especially for president, is allotted among states, and since the territories are not states, they do not have presidential electors and hence no vote for president. Nor are they represented in the U.S. Senate.
The territories did, however, receive a consolation prize: A delegate to Congress who cannot vote on anything significant. I don’t need to explain this to those who live in the U.S. territories. There have been repeated litigation in federal courts on the contours of territorial rights. Some states have denied absentee ballots to residents in Guam, on the guise that they can vote locally.
American Samoa is different. Natives are U.S. non-citizen nationals, ineligible for U.S. federal employment, higher level security and military clearances, student loans (whether that’s a bad thing is subject to future debate), and the like.
A court case from Utah last year has been the latest upheaval, finding that American Samoans are entitled to U.S. citizenship at birth. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently held arguments. It could very well go to the U.S. Supreme Court and entail some sort of federal legislation and perhaps a referendum in the territory.
For its part, the government of American Samoa has argued against citizenship.
Perhaps, Congress wants to indulge in fetishizing the exotic and can’t comprehend distant shores being part of the American Republic. Perhaps they are simply proving America’s competitors right when they talk about American stupidity and inability to understand our own country.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To subscribe to our print edition,