The colonial history of the United States rarely expands beyond the settler colonialism that led to the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people. Terms like empire rarely are associated with the country, and U.S. maps fail to acknowledge anything beyond the mainland’s “sea to shining sea.” Still, the U.S. Empire, or the Greater United States, speaks to not only the 50 states and D.C. but its five U.S. territories that have been forgotten and neglected.
“This self-image is ‘consoling, but it’s also costly,’” Daniel Immerwahr writes in How to Hide an Empire (New York Times). “At various times, the inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen.”
• Support organizations like Power 4 Puerto Rico, Fanohge Coalition, Virgin Islands Youth Advocacy Coalition, and Right to Democracy, working for their islands to achieve self-determination.
• Reflect: How much have you learned about U.S. colonization? Were you aware that the U.S. had and/or still controlled territories? How many stories have you read that acknowledge the U.S. as a colonizing country? How often do you see coverage centered around individual U.S. territories?
American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are the five inhabited U.S. territories. With the exclusion of people in American Samoa who are considered American nationals, those born in these regions are U.S. citizens, pay federal taxes (except federal income tax), serve in the military, are subject to federal laws, and can travel within the U.S. without a passport and hold a U.S. one. More than 4 million U.S. citizens and nationals reside in these islands and are majority racial or ethnic minorities (Insider, USGS).
Yet, they are not regarded or even known to be citizens:
A Puerto Rican family was barred from boarding their flight because they didn’t have a passport for their child (The Guardian). Another was allegedly threatened by police to have immigration called on him after he was denied a rental car because he had a P.R. license, not a passport. The limited disaster aid sent to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico following deadly hurricanes is unsupported by those in the country who favor cuts to foreign aid (New York Times). And nuclear threats against Guam were seen as a foreign issue, not a domestic concern.
A 2017 poll found that only 54% of U.S. adults know that people born in Puerto Rico are citizens (Morning Consult). This is partly due to limited media coverage and their lack of democratic rights, which has allowed the U.S. to conceal its imperialistic reign and continued neglect. This includes distancing itself from the empire image by calling them “territories,” not “colonies” around the 1910s (The Guardian). Like in the states, the U.S. territories have their own governments, elect governors, and have a House of Representative delegate.
However, these delegates have no voting power, like the residents who have no voting rights. The lack of voting representation in Congress and presidential elections and limited basic protections were made possible by a series of U.S. Supreme Court opinions called the Insular Cases.
From 1901 to 1922, the Court determined to what extent the rights and protections of the Constitution applied to residents in the newly acquired territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the now-independent Philippines. Before then, it was customary for U.S. territories to receive full constitutional protections with an eventual pathway to statehood, see Alaska and Hawai’i (The Guardian). But distance and a lack of “white settlement” that made the previous territories “more palatable for statehood from the perspective of the mainland,” the new territories were seen as foreign, with the Court and President Theodore Roosevelt describing inhabitants as “alien races” and “savage tribes” (Smithsonian Magazine). Decided by the same Court that upheld “separate but equal,” residents of these new U.S. territories were deemed as “sort of” Americans, which meant that only selected parts of the Constitution applied to them (Slate). This would amount to them having U.S. citizenship and limited self-governance, with the U.S. government still maintaining control.
“We’re kind of half-fellow of Americans,” said writer Tihu Lujan from Guam (Insider). “Our American passport comes with an asterisk. You have it but you’re not really it.”
This status made it possible for unchecked freedom from the U.S. government, businesses, and institutions (see Dr. Cornelius Rhoads), but mainly the military who use these regions as strategic U.S. military bases for hazardous dumping, explosive-ordnance disposal, training, and firing range, and bombing practice that has displaced, desecrated, poisoned and polluted the islands and the people (The Nation, New York Times, The Atlantic).
The territories also experience major economic disparities and poverty, exacerbated by a fragmented healthcare system, declining manufacturing and job opportunities, inflated transport of goods, limited federal program benefits, lack of affordable housing, privatization, and climate change (Washington Post, New York Times).
Across the five U.S. territories, referendums, proposed bills, and protests have pushed for the U.S. to end its colonial regime and give the people of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands back their voices. Whether it be equal rights, free association, statehood, or independence, the reckoning and collapse of the U.S. empire is long overdue.
• The U.S. controls five inhabited territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
• Issues occurring on these islands are considered foreign problems, not domestic ones.
• U.S. territories have no voting power in the U.S. mainland but are still largely controlled by its policies and presidents.