More than five million people live in the United States territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Though these territories are part of the United States, their residents lack full citizenship rights. On February 17, Soraya Diase Coffelt '81 shared her insights on the issue in "The Struggle of the U.S. Virgin Islands-America's Caribbean Paradise-for Full Constitutional and Citizenship Rights and Self Governance," a lecture presented by the Berger International Legal Studies Program.
Coffelt is a native of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Following her graduation from Cornell Law School, she worked as a law clerk in the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands and went on to become the first female Hispanic from St. Thomas to be a judge, serving on the Virgin Islands territorial court from 1994 to 2000.
Coffelt began her lecture with some basic facts about the U.S. Virgin Islands. Like the other territories, it is governed by the Revised Organic Act of 1954, and it is through that act of Congress, rather than through the 14th Amendment, that residents of the territories derive their citizenship. Virgin Islanders are citizens in name but cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. They are empowered to elect a delegate to Congress, but she may note vote on the floor. Extreme power is concentrated in the executive branch of the Virgin Islands’ government, a circumstance, Coffelt observed, that has created a lack of transparency. Coffelt mentioned her 2014 stint as the Virgin Islands’ attorney general, a position she resigned after only ten days due to the rampant government corruption she encountered.
Coffelt’s lecture highlighted the U.S. Supreme Court Insular Cases of 1901, which established the extent to which the U.S. Constitution applies to the territories. The court’s decision included a notorious opinion authored by Justice White, which portrayed territory residents as “alien races” unfit for incorporation into the United States as American citizens. Now, as multiple cases regarding the territories head to the Supreme Court, there is a chance to overturn the Insular Cases decision. Coffelt encouraged the audience to learn more about important pending cases at equalrightsnow.org, the site of the We the People Project, which is dedicated to gaining equal rights and representation for all Americans.
The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A session. One attendee asked Coffelt what motive the federal government could have for denying citizenship to residents of the territories. “I believe, frankly, that they see voting as a privilege, not a right,” she said. The take-away of her lecture, Coffelt said, was “America still has colonies.”