Insular Cases can’t be undone with criticism alone, leaders caution

SYMBOL: A scale model of the Statue of Liberty is pictured at the Paseo de Susana Park in Hagåtña. Local senators have introduced a resolution supporting a congressional effort to denounce a series of Supreme Court cases that legitimized Guam's status as an unincorporated territory. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part report on the Guam Legislature’s public hearing on Resolution 56-36, which supports an effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to condemn the Insular Cases.

Although a congressional effort to denounce the Insular Cases and a local resolution supporting it are welcome, neither will have any legal effect to change or undo any inequities caused by the century-old series of Supreme Court decisions.

Several local experts offering testimony to the Guam Legislature on Wednesday cautioned that while it is important to reject the racist ideas of America’s past, further action is needed in order to either apply constitutional protections to territories such as Guam, or to address other fundamental limitations related to the island’s status as a modern-day colony.

“So, let’s say the racism is decried. Then what? What happens next? Well, the underpinnings of the case are still intact,” Robert Underwood, one of Guam’s former delegates to the House of Representatives, said. “The U.S. Congress still has the authority to deal with the territories in any way they want. So saying that the underpinnings of the Insular Cases is racist doesn’t really change anything.”

Discussions that take place on what changes should be made in response to the Insular Cases is “when we see the wide differences of opinion” come forward, Underwood said. Some arguments from other non-self-governing territories of the country such as Washington, D.C., premise their fight for equal treatment with slogans not favorable to Guam, particularly “taxation without representation.”

“Some people think we’re fighting for full equality as American citizens. Well, I know lots of people who don’t really want that. They’re not fighting for full citizenship, ‘first-class citizenship’ – whatever that may bring with it. They’re fighting for independence; they’re fighting for free association; they’re fighting for some kind of other status, which may not include first-class citizenship,” he said.

The U.S. Congress already has the power to equalize benefits in the territories such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. It could also authorize binding political status votes for Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the former delegate stressed.

“But the reality is, I don’t think Congress is going to exercise either of those options,” Underwood said.

Guam and other territories shouldn’t just limit efforts to federal options, according to Melvin Won Pat-Borja, director of the Commission on Decolonization.

He explained during the hearing that the island’s government has tried repeatedly to improve our relationship with the United States formally – as early as 1902. He cautioned against “the danger of our core issue to be shrouded by cosmetic changes that do not necessarily strengthen our position or our ability to right this historical wrong.”

Congress has historically been mum on political equity for territories such as Guam, Won Pat-Borja said. During his tenure as director, he’s been asked why the local government engages with international and foreign organizations such as the United Nations on what is “a (strictly) federal issue.” He said failed attempts to work with the U.S. government on approving a commonwealth status died repeatedly in committee without a full floor vote, an outcome he said is “insulting” given the amount of work done locally to submit the proposal. The creation of the Commission on Decolonization was a direct result of the failed attempts to resolve the issue federally.

“Though the federal government will say, ‘We support self-determination for Guam,’ what they won’t say is that we support CHamoru self-determination, what they won’t say is we support decolonization,” Won Pat-Borja said. “Because admitting those two things, admits they still have colonies to this day, and that it’s OK.”

Won Pat-Borja also advocated for more than just mere recognition of the “undemocratic and immoral injustices” that have been enabled by the Supreme Court decisions.

“It is my hope that abolishing the Insular Cases will be but a stepping stone to genuine self-determination and decolonization for all territories,” he said. “Overturning the Insular Cases without addressing the uniqueness of each territory’s relationship to the United States would be a disservice to the territories.”


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