It’s past time to give a damn about U.S. territories. Here’s a primer

The year of 2017 has featured more news about U.S. territories than any other year in my memory. Last month, North Korea responded to Donald Trump’s provocations by threatening to attack Guam. This month, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were both tragically affected by Hurricane Irma. Despite U.S. territories being in the headlines, many people in the U.S. are unaware of what the term “U.S. territories” entails, or why it matters.

There are sixteen U.S. territories, and one district: Washington D.C. YouTube creator CGP Grey created an excellent video on the topic of U.S. territories last year. He highlighted four key terms to know when discussing the territories: organized, unorganized, incorporated, and unincorporated. “Organized” means that a territory is self-governing to some extent. “Unincorporated” means that not all of the U.S. Constitution applies to the territory. All sixteen territories fit into these labels.

The unorganized, unincorporated territories are: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Wake Island, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank, and the Bajo Nuevo Bank. These islands are all incredibly small, and are uninhabited or virtually uninhabited.

Why would anyone care about most of these small islands in the first place? The answer is simple: bird poop. This is no joke; the Guano Islands Act from 1856 allows for U.S. citizens to take control of unclaimed, uninhabited islands with significant guano (“accumulated excrement of seabirds, seals, or cave-dwelling bats”) deposits. It also authorizes the U.S. president to use military force to defend these islands. The law stems from guano’s use as fertilizer and as an expensive commodity.

Perhaps the most noteworthy contemporary factor is that the United States’ claims on these islands are not without controversy:

  • Wake Island is also claimed by the Marshall Islands
  • Navassa Island is also claimed by Haiti
  • Serranilla Bank is also claimed by Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Jamaica. In 2012, the International Court of Justice found the Colombia has sovereignty over it, but the United States ignored the ruling.
  • Bajo Nuevo Bank is also claimed by Colombia, Jamaica, and Nicaragua. As in the Seranilla Bank case, in 2012 the ICJ ruled in Colombia’s favor, and the United States has ignored the ruling.

The Palmyra Atoll is the only unorganized, incorporated territory. It is self-governing and the Constitution does apply, but no one lives on this island. This means, as CGP Grey pointed out, if a foreign national were to give birth on the island, the child would theoretically be a United States citizen. Considering that it is an unpopulated nature reserve hundreds of kilometers from any inhabited island, this seems unrealistic.

These eleven territories are not particularly noteworthy. They are small, few to no people live on them, and they are far away from other settlements. Even the disputes of ownership are not major factors in the United States’ foreign relations. The consequential matters revolve around the U.S. territories that have sizable populations.

These are mostly unincorporated, organized territories, consisting of: Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. To reiterate, this means that they are relatively self-governing, but that all of the U.S. Constitution does not necessarily apply. Puerto Rico has the largest population by far, although many people are moving stateside within the United States.

The people living in these four territories are United States citizens. They have U.S. passports and are able to move stateside and back without having to obtain a visa. They are unable to vote while they are living in the territories, but if they move to the United States, they can vote. (Somewhat paradoxically, U.S. citizens living as ex-patriates in other countries are able to vote.)

There is one territory that I did not mention above: American Samoa. It is technically an unorganized, unincorporated territory, although, unlike the other islands, it is home to 55,000 people. Unfortunately, these people are technically U.S. nationals, and not U.S. citizens; they are able to move to the United States, but they’ll have to go through immigration if they want to become a citizen. This seems to be a legal error that Congress has not fixed, as there is no clear reason why their legal status should be different from that of other territories.

In addition, the United States has extraterritorial jurisdiction in a number of places worldwide, including the controversial Guantánamo Bay base (the ‘agreement’ is disputed by Cuba), research stations in Antarctica, and hundreds of military bases. The small nations of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau also have a deal with the United States that allows citizens of these countries to work and live in the U.S. (and vice versa).

In the past, the United States has claimed control over Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. There are many other areas claimed at various times–mostly during or after periods of war–by the United States, but they are too numerous to mention here.


Photo captured September 9, 2017.


There exists a commonly repeated myth that, unlike other superpowers, the United States has never sought colonial goals. This is demonstrably false. Not only was the inception of the United States rooted in colonizing land owned by Native American tribes, but the United States has expanded its reach far beyond its borders. Many people in the United States are still unaware of its historic and present claims on these lands.

The people residing in U.S. territories are faced with a difficult situation. They are forced to follow United States law, but are unable to vote in national elections. They do not have representation in either branch of Congress. This issue is sometimes brought up in presidential years, as territories possess no Electoral College votes. In other words, they have no say in the branches of government that can override their local autonomy.

People in Puerto Rico are forced to buy only goods shipped on U.S. vessels, even if they are more expensive. Many in Guam object to being home to a U.S. military base (and, thus, being in the crosshairs of a nuclear power), without being able to vote. Recently, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have had significant economic issues, but were unable to file for bankruptcy like a U.S. state would. In American Samoa, the issue mentioned above about their legal status is very contentious.

Generally, three major proposals to rectify some of the issues pertaining to territorial legal status pop up every now and then:

  • Independence. The most radical–and unlikely–option is for the United States to relinquish control over Puerto Rico, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands and allow them to become independent nations. This option is controversial even within these territories. Furthermore, countries typically do not cede land unless it becomes too costly to maintain.
  • Statehood. Theoretically, these territories could become five new states. (Possibly six new states, with the addition of Washington D.C.?) This is a controversial option. Stateside politicians are typically concerned with granting statehood to a set of territories that have high crime rates and messy budgetary situations–even if much of this is due to their disenfranchised status. Within the territories, there is fear that statehood would further restrict the territories’ self-determination.
  • Constitutional amendment. If the Constitution were amended, it would be possible to improve the situation of U.S. territories while stopping short of granting statehood. I apologize for being a bit vague here, but there are numerous possibilities that could come about from Constitutionally reimagining the legal status of territories. Regardless, given that there isn’t even enough political will to fix the legal oddities surrounding American Samoa and the Palmyra Atoll above, I doubt that there would be the groundswell of support for any constitutional change.

Generally these proposals do not get much traction. None of the proposals are particularly passable given the current political climate. Case in point: while the stateside U.S. media focused on Hurricane Irma’s impact on the state of Florida, the hurricane had already impacted two territories: the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Whether intentionally or not, stateside citizens of the United States seem to neither acknowledge nor respect those living in U.S. territories as fellow Americans. Given this erasure, it is not difficult to see why the controversy over the U.S. territories’ statuses are so complicated within their respective territories, but a non-issue stateside.

Interestingly, the Democratic and Republican Parties both back statehood for Puerto Rico. The Democrats would likely have the most to gain, given that U.S. territories tend to vote Democratic. This would likely give the Democrats two additional senators, additional electoral college votes, and more representation in the House of Representatives.

It is hard to say what the best option would be. The people within the territories should be able to decide their own future, but the independence option and statehood option seem to be the better than the status quo or the constitutional amendment option. With these options, either the citizens of the territories are treated as equal entities, or they will be resigned to second-class status.

While predicting the future may be impossible, it seems unlikely that any majors changes will occur in the next few years. In the midst of writing this article, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggested to President Trump that Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, and Rose Atoll–a small island in American Samoa–should be modified to allow commercial enterprises to take place within these currently-protected areas.

Word of Zinke’s suggestions broke only a short time before news of Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico broke. While Trump tweeted support for the island, this came mere months after him harshly criticizing the Puerto Rican government for its debt crisis. If President Trump is truly concerned with Puerto Rico, perhaps he should at the very least offer economic aid, and not just whine on social media.

It’s easy to observe that the Trump administration appears more concerned with the economic capacity of a handful of inhabited territories, as opposed to the quality of life for millions of U.S. citizens living on other islands. However, perhaps this is the very narrative has defined the U.S. territorial experience from the beginning, and why changing conditions for the territories won’t come anytime soon.


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.