Written by: Safiyah Baxter and Kaleab Brook
On October 29th, 2018 one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones ever to make landfall devastated the Northern Mariana Islands – a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean. Super Typhoon Yutu struck late October with wind speeds equivalent to that of a Category 5 hurricane. The storm’s 180 mph winds caused what National Weather Service Meteorologist called “catastrophic damage” on the island of Tinian and the territory’s largest island, Saipan. Yutu destroyed the territory’s electrical grid and made its ports inaccessible. However, in the continental United States, the lack of awareness was jarring.
Despite its impact on thousands of American citizens who had just been battered by one of the strongest cyclones in recorded history, coverage on major U.S. media outlets was sparse. There had been no mention of the American citizens who live on the Northern Mariana Islands by the president or any other official. These actions reflect the United States’ treatment of residents of the U.S. Territories across the board. This situation is also eerily reminiscent of the jumbled U.S. response in 2017 to natural disasters in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The United States’ overseas territories Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are effectively modern-day colonies. As a national organization, that serves young people historically left out the leadership development pipeline, we took a step back to reevaluate whom we serve and found that we could not fulfill our maximum potential without expanding our reach to the U.S. territories.
As an organization, we have come to the conclusion that not expressly reaching out to U.S. territories with our services and programming is contributing to the political, social and economic exclusion residents of the U.S. territories already face in American society. Without giving all U.S. citizens equitable access to the same opportunities residents of the continental United States are afforded we are complicit in their oppression and exclusion. As a national nonprofit that aims to identify, engage, and empower young people across the country, we are now committed to serving all U.S. Citizens no matter where they live.
Although citizens of territories pay federal taxes and can freely travel within the United States, they do not have the same political power as residents of the continental United States. Territories do not have a representation in Congress; instead, they each send shadow delegates to the House and Senate who possesses no voting power. Moreover, residents of U.S. territories do not have the right to participate in the presidential election. This diminished political status means territories are often mistreated or ignored by the federal government.
Despite their inability to vote in federal elections, Puerto Ricans, Virgin Islanders, citizens of Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands have been U.S. citizens for more than 100 years. But due to the insular cases, a racist legal framework that affected nonwhite territories of the United States, these territories were unable to gain statehood. The insular cases are why these predominantly Black and Brown territories continue to have little influence over the federal government they are subject to the whim of. Alternatively, states with predominantly white leadership at the time, Alaska and Hawaii, were granted statehood in 1959. Regrettably, the pattern of taking land from its indigenous inhabitants and not affording them the same political, social or economic opportunities is a common theme throughout U.S. history.
Within the last year relationships between the continental United States and U.S. territories have taken a more strenuous toll due to natural disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Maria leaving both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands left to rebuild entire communities with little to no aid. By comparison, Florida and Texas, have seen an influx of disaster aid personnel since Hurricane Maria hit. Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which is an essential aspect of aid when saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Hurricane Maria before the federal government had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico. However, the lack of air support presents the least of the situation.
During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico. Nine days after Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria. It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico. To put things in perspective, unlike Irma, Maria was one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
The situation in Guam is not far removed: its residents have no representation in the U.S. Congress and relationship with Guam today is one of predominantly military interest. Military officers have served as governors and the rights of Guam’s citizens come second to the military’s, especially now as they sit at the forefront of the Korean missile crisis. In American Samoa, unlike every another inhabited U.S. territory, residents aren’t even granted birthright citizenship, let alone the right to political participation in their own federal government.
At YP4, the poor treatment of these American citizens spurred conversations about citizenship, responsibility and most importantly the impact of the vestiges of our country’s imperialist past. The lack of awareness among residents of the continental United States of the protracted social, economic, and social marginalization residents of the U.S. territories face is troubling. We are not only citizens of the United States, but citizens of the 21st century and the treatment of resident of the U.S. territories over the past year and throughout history is unacceptable.
Young People For understands the need to extend our programmatic capacity to the U.S. territories as a matter of equity. Expanding our networks to the U.S. Territories will create a platform to engage and empower historically marginalized communities – a core aspect of our mission. In this vein, we hope to identify, educate and empower young people in the U.S. territories – acknowledging their unique experience as U.S. nationals, in efforts to reverse the impact of an imperialist history that continues to perpetuate political, social, and economic segregation in the United States.