Statehood and Citizenship: What Does “American” Mean?

World Series champs should get statehood,” said Hillary Clinton on Halloween night, 2019.  Just over a year ago, the Washington Nationals clinched their first ever championship title, and baseball fans and DC statehood champions alike took to social media and the news to celebrate the win.  The Nationals’ home town, and arguably more importantly, the capital of our nation, the District of Columbia, has been a territory, not a state, since 1790.  Other US territories include American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and probably most famously, Puerto Rico.  The United States also have a variety of other uninhabited and disputed territories, mostly islands that the government has laid claim to in the past.  The United States has had territories since its conception; most of the mainland US outside of the thirteen colonies were first bought or conquered as territories that later applied for statehood.  Nowadays, however, the citizens of American inhabited territories, including the city of Washington, DC, do not have as many rights as people who were born citizens of a certain state.  Citizenship of the United States of America and citizenship of a certain state are two separate things.  With the notable exception of American Samoa, everyone born in a US territory is considered a citizen (in American Samoa you’re considered a “US national” rather than a citizen).  Once someone from a territory (other than American Samoa) moves to a recognized US state and become a citizen of that state, they are allowed to participate in the political process.  

However, there are still limitations on the rights of an American territorial citizen.  Native-born American Samoans enlist in the United States army in high rates, but due to their status as “non-citizen nationals” they are not allowed to vote, sit on a jury, hold public employment like police officer or working in a public school, or even, in some cases, be eligible to run for public office in the US state in which they reside.  Citizens of the four inhabited island territories, who are automatically granted United States citizenship upon their birth under the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause, can only exercise these rights once they become a citizen of a US state by moving to the mainland, Alaska, or Hawai’i.  The District of Columbia is the only United States territory where citizens have the right to vote for the president with three electoral votes, however their only representative to Congress is a non-voting member of the HouseGuam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa also have their own non-voting members of the House, but none of these territories have Senate representation.  

So what is so important about citizenship and statehood?  The five inhabited island territories and DC are all subject to the laws and regulations passed by the United States government, but the people who live there are granted virtually no representation or voice in the making of these laws.  Every child knows the phrase “no taxation without representation,” but America is turning its back on this infamous founding principle by annexing lands without any intention of extending civil and legal rights to the people who live there.  DC has tried for years to become the state of New Columbia; other territories have been fighting bitter public battles for years on whether or not to vote to become a state or an independent country.  Puerto Rico held a referendum in 2017 with an overwhelming 97% of votes cast in favor of becoming the 51st state (albeit with only 23% voter turnout).  Even the established state of Hawai’i has an independence movement alive and well. As the only indigenous nation without tribal sovereignty, many indigenous Hawaiians see the incorporation of their homeland into the United States based on a vote without an option for independence and of majority non-native Hawaiians, as well as the continual annexation of new territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa into the United States, just a continuation of America’s colonial imperialist past.  The idea of “American Exceptionalism” began as soon as the nation was born in the 1700s, but the desire and “holy mission” to “spread freedom and democracy” to the conquered native peoples of the continent and beyond was not at all realized.  Instead, the United States has simply expanded its political and economic reach for its own gain without thought to the rights and freedoms of the peoples in the lands that they have taken.  The case of the District of Columbia is slightly different; it should be incorporated as a state into the United States legislature so its citizens can exercise full political and legal rights.  However in the case of the inhabited island territories, once-sovereign nations swept up into cultural imperialism, the right to choose their own future is imperative to their rights as human beings, and as either sovereign nations or as Americans if they so choose.  The United States is holding these nations in limbo, with some rights and privileges of US citizenship granted and others withheld.  The territories should be able to decide for themselves the fate of their nations: whether to be incorporated as full US states with Congressional representation, or to be decolonized in full and granted the independence that the US government has stripped from them.