Moving the country in a more equitable direction

With a new President at the helm, and with Democrats controlling both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the federal government has a unique opportunity to focus on policies that benefit all Americans, including those residing in the U.S. territories. After years of neglect and a clearly failed approach by the Trump administration, now is the time to resolve longstanding inequities in federal treatment of territorial residents.

Nearly 4 million Americans live in the territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands of the United States. Ninety-eight percent of this population identifies as a member of one or more racial or ethnic minorities. Territorial residents experience both the systemic racism mainland Americans are familiar with and the second-class status and marginalization created by antiquated federal policies that prevent full political representation.

There is no justification for maintaining the status quo any longer. It is time to move forward. 

The Biden-Harris administration and Congress should start by providing full federal voting rights for all Americans residing in the territories. As it stands, U.S. citizens in the territories are unable to vote for president and lack voting representation in Congress. Despite being qualified for military service and being treated, in other respects, as full Americans, close to 4 million otherwise eligible men and women were barred from participating in the most recent general election, despite its enormous impact on their livelihoods and futures.

Without the capacity to fully participate in our democratic processes, territorial residents will continue to have their needs ignored, deferred or minimized. It doesn’t take any imagination to see what happens when some citizens are fully represented at the federal level and others aren’t. The lack of federal resources in the territories compared to the states—not just for disaster relief but of the everyday variety—is already stark and deserves real attention. 

For this reason, and others, we strongly support H.R. 1—For the People Act of 2021, which proposes a Congressional Task Force on Voting Rights of United States Citizen Residents of Territories of the United States. The Task Force would be responsible for recommending changes that would extend full and equal voting rights to residents of U.S. territories in federal elections.   

If our fellow Democrats hope to build a healthier and more equitable nation, they must also prioritize the expansion and extension of key federal programs to the territories. Although states receive Medicaid funding according to residents’ per-capita income, this funding is arbitrarily capped for territories, heavily and needlessly straining available resources and threatening the lives of thousands of low-income Americans. 

Similarly, the Supplemental Security Income, which aids disabled, blind, and low-income adults and children, excludes residents of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands of the United States from participation. Several pieces of legislation are expected to be introduced in this Congress to close the gap in these programs and others, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This would provide crucial assistance to hundreds of thousands of eligible individuals residing in the territories and positively contribute to their local economies.

Any efforts to end inequities and overcome the impacts of racism cannot fully succeed without addressing the political relationship between the U.S. and its territories. This is perhaps most apparent in Puerto Rico, whose political status has been a focus of intense debate for decades and became a prominent subject during the last election. The Biden-Harris team has pledged to prioritize resolving Puerto Rico’s political status, and as leaders in Congress on the committee with jurisdiction over the issue, we intend to do the same. 

A concerted federal response to these issues is long overdue. The Biden-Harris administration’s first 100 days will be heavily scrutinized for signs of material successes, and anyone searching for a bellwether should look to the U.S. territories for signs that the lives of long-neglected Americans are being measurably improved. 

The new administration has the support of a Democratic-controlled Congress to help drive this process forward. With some thoughtful consideration and a bit of courage, we can lead the country in a more equitable direction. But that promise of equitable treatment will only have meaning if every American, including those in the territories, is brought along for the ride.

Source: Saipan Tribune