Editor’s Note: MinJu Kang is a student at Marianas Baptist Academy. The following is the text of Kang’s speech at the Attorney General Cup speech competition last May 4.
This beautiful group of islands we call home is under the auspices of the United States of America with a series of papers called the Insular Cases Doctrine. The laws of this doctrine were put into action from 1903 to settle the constitutional and political status of the numerous territories the U.S. attained after triumphing in the Spanish-American War of 1898. It fundamentally states that, even if a child is born on U.S. soil, a territory of the U.S., he or she would have a much inferior status compared to that of a child born in the U.S. mainland. Some of the rights the territorial-born U.S. citizens are not given are voting rights, rights to bear arms: and right to apply for federal and specific state professions. Many are furious with this law because it conveys racism, not to mention that the so-called “qualified” citizens of the U.S. said it is unjust to integrate us “alien races” through the rules of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Insular Cases Doctrine does restrict the rights of the U.S. citizens of the territories as compared to those of the citizens of the 50 states with no right to vote as an individual as well as no right to have a voting representation in Congress. Furthermore, many will agree with the argument made in Rossello v. United States that denying the territories’ U.S. citizens voting representation in the federal government is equal to the U.S. violating its international legal obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. As U.S. citizens, the people of the unincorporated territories need the same political rights as the guaranteed rights of the mainland citizens.
Say the Insular Cases Doctrine never existed. Then all the unincorporated areas held in the U.S.’s hands will be given the exact same rights as those states in the mainland have had since birth. This thought may delight us since we all have equal political rights But the Insular Cases do more than divide us from our colleagues in the mainland. It also has provisions that help the locals maintain their ties to the islands. While the law strips us of certain representations, it also stipulates that only those of Chamorro and/or Carolinian descent (“those of Northern Mariana Islands descent, an NMD, as defined in
the Constitution”) may have the right to own land here. To everyone else in the community not an NMD, the Insular Cases and Article 12 positions the law that 55 years is the longest he or she can hold real property. If it weren’t for this limitation, the islanders of the 20th century would have sold miles of the precious land to newcomers to ensure economic sustainability. In other words, the CNMI would have had to go through the exact same outcome that the native Hawaiians and Native Americans had to suffer, basically losing the rights to the land they were born to. Moreover, this restriction has protected the islands from drastic overdevelopment and wanton foreign investments. In some ways, it also makes the young locals who have left the islands for the U.S. mainland and other larger places for reasons such as education to return to the islands to reclaim what has been handed down to them by their ancestors, while also encouraging them to seek new diverse methods to better their lives on the land they own. Only those of the NMD can decide what the property they are holding will be transformed into. The Insular Cases, which have long been thought of as a set of restrictions mirroring colonialism and racism, are actually recognized now as “bulwarks, or protections, for cultural preservation.” Nonetheless, reliance on the Insular Cases would no longer be needed only if courts were to start recognizing and protecting both the cultural and the political rights of those in the U.S. territories.
The court case of Wabol v. Villacrusis in 1990 previously stated that the political unity between the U.S. and the CNMI would have been dissolved—if the CNMI was not assured that it would be able to restrict landownership to people from the Marianas for the protection of the cultural connection to their islands. Furthermore, the term “culture” itself is the set of “learned traits shared by a group of people.” This would include values, beliefs, language, and religion, which are constantly in change with exposure to new people, ideas, practices, and experiences. Therefore, we must ask ourselves. What is our culture? Aren’t we a true melting pot with a malleable culture? Aren’t prominent features of the island culture brought in by foreigners such as the value that Catholicism has on the CNMI? These are a few things we can take time for consideration.
The Insular Cases Doctrine is still very relevant to the people of the CNMI to this day. Although voting rights and other rights are not guaranteed to the citizens of the territorial islands, this lack would eventually have no significance if the islanders had no land to lawfully call theirs. Ownership of the land has been a major factor sustaining the islanders’ lives. It is at the heart of the islanders’ culture and identity. Thus, the doctrine must continue to be applied to the islands in the interest of preservation of the island culture, which can only be accomplished with landownership to pass through generations of the Northern Mariana Islands descents to come.