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Citizenship in the US territories and District of Columbia

What is the citizenship status of people who live in the US territories and District of Columbia? Created by Kimberly Kutz.

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Video transcript

- [Presenter] Did you know that there are more than 4 million people who live in American territories that aren't part of the 50 US states? In fact, the US claims 16 territories outside of the continental United States, although a few of those are in dispute with other countries and only five of them are permanently inhabited. So where are these territories? Let's look at a map. Most of the territories are here in the Pacific. The inhabited territories here are Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Then there are two here in the Caribbean, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. You may also be surprised to learn that the capital of the United States, Washington, is in a special geographic and political zone called the District of Columbia, which is also not a state. The most populous territory by far is Puerto Rico with more than 3 million residents. Its population is greater than 19 of the US states, putting it just behind Utah but ahead of Iowa in numbers. The District of Columbia has more than 700,000 residents, putting it ahead of just two states in population. The other four territories are much smaller with between 50,000 and 200,000 residents. The citizenship status and voting rights of the people living in these territories might be different from residents of the states. Let's delve a little bit more into these differences. Most people living in the American territories are granted US citizenship at birth, although that has not always been the case. Although white people born in the District of Columbia have had citizenship at birth from the creation of the district in 1790, the large black population of the city didn't gain citizenship protections until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Over the course of the 20th century, the residents of four of the other territories have gotten citizenship status by various means, starting with Puerto Rico by an act of Congress in 1917. The US Virgin Islands gained citizenship by congressional order in 1927. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act expanded the definition of who received US citizenship at birth to include Guam. And residents of the Northern Mariana Islands became citizens when their territory became a Commonwealth in 1976. The residents of American Samoa are currently US nationals, not US citizens. This means that they have the right to travel and live in the United States. And they're afforded protection by the United States when traveling abroad, but they don't qualify for other benefits of US citizenship, like the right to vote. But that might change soon. Right now, a case which is seeking US citizenship for American Samoans, Fitisemanu versus the United States, is making its way through the federal court system. So we may hear a ruling on this case this year. The citizens of the territories and Washington DC have many of the same citizenship rights and responsibilities as citizens of the states. Remember, because American Samoans are US nationals rather than citizens, their situation is a little bit different. So what I'm about to say does not apply to them. The citizens of the territories have the right to move freely within the United States without a passport. They also have the right to vote in presidential primaries but not in presidential elections. We'll talk more about voting rights in a sec, because DC is also a bit different in this regard. Citizens in the territories also have most of the same civil and political rights as the people in the states, and their responsibilities are also much the same. Although they don't have to pay federal income tax, they do have to pay other federal taxes like Social Security and Medicare. They also must defend the country when called upon and obey federal laws and regulations. However, even though the citizens of the territories and Washington DC have to obey federal laws, pay federal taxes and defend the country when called upon, they do not have any voting representation in Congress. Each of the territories has a delegate in the House of Representatives. But although those delegates may participate and debate and sit on committees, they may not cast votes. The citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands can vote for their territorial governor, their delegate in the House and in presidential primaries. The citizens of Washington DC can vote for their mayor and City Council, although Congress has the authority to block any laws passed by that council, if they disagree with them. DC citizens may vote in presidential elections as well. The 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave the district three votes in the electoral college for the election of the president and the vice president. So what do you think about citizenship and voting rights in the territories and in the District of Columbia? How are they different from those of the citizens of the states? And how are they similar? Why do you think they're different? And do you think they should be?