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12 23Wed09172014

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Back Local News Weare looking to make territorial rights a national issue

Weare looking to make territorial rights a national issue

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NEIL Weare, president and founder of the We the People project, spoke to about 100 people in the CLASS Lecture Hall at the University of Guam yesterday about the project that seeks equal rights and political representation for all those living in the U.S., including residents of the U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. He will speak to members of the Guam Bar Association today at noon, and will hold a fundraiser at Club Denial tomorrow evening. He will also speak to the CNMI Bar Association and at the Northern Marianas College in Saipan.

“This is the public launch of We the People project,” he told Variety. “Really it involves all the territories.” The project addresses issues common to Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.

We the People was formed in February. Its most immediate focus is its representation of eight plaintiffs from American Samoa in the case Tuaua v. United States. The plaintiffs claim that under the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States, they should be citizens by virtue of being born in the U.S. territory. Residents of American Samoa are considered non-citizen nationals.

“The status of America Samoa is basically the same as it was in Guam before the Organic Act,” Weare said. “The issue and relevance for the other territories is: Is the citizenship of the residents of these areas based on federal statute which can change, or is it based upon the guarantees of the Constitution?”

Insular cases

If it is the former, Congress can remove citizenship by passing another law – the same way it granted it, Weare said.

“Then more broadly with that case as a vehicle for reconsidering the insular cases, this impact litigation (the Tuaua case) provides an opportunity to have a real national conversation about the status of these areas and revisiting those cases,” he said. “It creates an opportunity for different kinds of political discussion in Congress and in the territories about what the future of these areas is.”

The “insular cases” are a series of court decisions in the early part of the 20th century – shortly after the territories in question became part of the United States. They have been interpreted to mean that the full guarantees of the Constitution do not apply in the “unincorporated territories.”

“Under the insular cases ... we can keep these areas in this perpetual state without ever having to address issues of political representation,” he said. “If you change that, you can create some new opportunities for addressing these broader issues of rights and representation.”

At UOG, Weare told attendees how, as a high school student, he had been incensed at the unfairness of Guam’s territorial status and had carried that indignation through his higher education and into his career.

Weare is a former Guam resident and graduate of Southern High School. He worked as a staffer for the Guam Legislature and as press secretary for Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo. He holds his doctorate in law from the Yale Law School.

“The new approach that our organization is talking about is trying to bring these areas together,” he said. “So instead of it being a Guam issue or a D.C. issue or a Puerto Rican issue, it’s really an American issue. It’s a civil rights issue that affects almost 5 million Americans. Equal constitutional rights and representative government are really the core of what American democracy is about.”

He said the organization is trying to “create a new civil rights movement around rights and representation for all Americans.”

Banding together

The territories will more likely be successful by banding together. “In the last 50 years, it’s been an every-man-for-himself strategy in each of these areas,” he said. “It would be a much more powerful statement and movement if the residents of these areas worked toward a common solution. The voice of nearly 5 million Americans is much more powerful than the voice of any of these communities by themselves.”

The organization’s advisory board includes former Guam Delegate Ben Blaz and former Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta.

The first task will be to build connections among the different communities, Weare said. “The timeline is the next two years. We’re going to be focusing on work in the territories and D.C. itself to really get this conversation going, then – a few years after that, leading up to the 2016 presidential election – really trying to make this a national conversation.”

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