How Do the 5 U.S. Territories Differ From the 50 States?

By: John Donovan  | 

Guam
People go about their day on Guam, one of the five inhabited U.S. territories. Henri Oftana/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The island of Guam is about 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) long and maybe only 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) across at its widest point. A tiny island like that, admittedly, is easy to lose sight of way out in the Pacific, some 3,800 miles (6,115 kilometers) west of Honolulu. Who knows what's going on there?

Yet something no one should be confused about concerns Guam's allegiances. Due to its designation as a U.S. territory and its position on the other side of the international date line, Guam boasts as its semi-official slogan, "Where America's Day Begins." Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed there. Its roughly 160,000 residents are U.S. citizens. Michael San Nicolas represents the island in Congress.

Guam may not be the America that many think of when they consider Old Glory, baseball and unfettered consumerism. But make no mistake: Guam is American. It might be proper to recognize those on Guam, and the other permanently populated U.S. territories in the Pacific and Caribbean, as full-on Americans.

Rather than, say, foreigners. Or some breakaway group that the Mother Nation has to step on to control.

Rather than, you know, the way England treated its American colonies a couple of centuries ago.

"America has a colonies problem," says lawyer Neil Weare, the president and founder of Equally American, a pro-territories rights group. "A few years ago, I would not have used the word colonies to describe the relationship [between the U.S. and its territories]. But I think over the last year, with the focus on racial justice ... the word colony now, I think people don't bat an eye. It just describes the relationship now more than ever."

U.S. territories
The U.S. maintains five inhabited territories and several uninhabited territories throughout the world.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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A U.S. Territory Primer

America has a long history with territories. The Northwest Territory, the Southwest Territory, the Oregon Territory, the Indiana Territory, Alabama, Arkansaw, Louisiana ... virtually every state now in the union began its American adventure as at least part of a territory or two, nomenclature aside. Even before the Declaration of Independence, what were the original "colonies" if not "territories" of England?

As the United States gobbled its way across North America in pursuit of its Manifest Destiny, every former territory was either molded into a state or a few of them. In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii both went from territories to stars on the flag.

And there things stopped.

More than 60 years later, the U.S. still has five permanently populated territories sitting in various states of American-ness, none on a fast track to statehood. A quick look:

American Samoa: Acquired in an 1899 treaty with Germany, American Samoa is considered a territory that is both unincorporated (which means that only parts of the U.S. Constitution apply) and unorganized (which means that Congress hasn't enacted a set of laws, like a Bill of Rights, specifically for that territory). It differs from the other territories on this list in one major way: People born in American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, not U.S. citizens.

Generally, all citizens are nationals, but nationals are not citizens. Nationals "owe allegiance" to the U.S., and can be granted a U.S. passport, but do not share many advantages of citizens. Strangely, and constitutionally questionable, U.S. citizens in the 50 states and D.C. have more rights than U.S. citizens from some of the territories below ... a major bone of contention for the people on this list.

Pola Island American Samoa
Pola Island, seen here, is just offshore from the village of Vatia on Tutuila Island in American Samoa. It is designated as part of the National Park American Samoa and is a popular tourist attraction.
National Park Service

The Northern Mariana Islands: Once part of the U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific (TTPI), the Northern Marianas (Guam is the southernmost island in the archipelago) are now considered a "commonwealth in political union with and under the sovereignty" of the U.S. About 90 percent of the population (about 51,000 total) lives on the island of Saipan. Commonwealths — the Northern Marianas and Puerto Rico — are generally considered to have a "more highly developed relationship" with the U.S. than other territories. The people of the Marianas are U.S. citizens by birth or descent.

Puerto Rico: Spain ceded control of the island of Puerto Rico to the U.S. in 1899. The population far outpaces that of the other territories; it's about 3.1 million, 2.4 million of that is in San Juan. Puerto Rico is considered an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S., with commonwealth status. Citizens of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens by birth or descent.

U.S. Virgin Islands: Purchased for $25 million in 1917 from Denmark, the U.S. Virgin Islands are considered an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S. The population, estimated at 105,000, is about 76 percent Black. Its economy runs on, among other industries, tourism, watch making and rum distilling. Its people are U.S. citizens by birth or descent.

Guam: Taken from Spain by the U.S. in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Guam was captured by the Japanese for three years in World War II. The U.S. liberated the island in 1944. It's been considered an unincorporated organized territory of the U.S. since 1950. The U.S. military bases are critical in the Pacific theater. People born on Guam, and their descendants, are U.S. citizens.

Naval Base Guam
Naval Base Guam, seen here, is located on Apra Harbor and in the Orote Peninsula. In 2009, it was combined with Andersen Air Force Base to form Joint Region Marianas, which is a Navy-controlled joint base. They are critical to the U.S. military presence in the Pacific theater.
U.S. Navy photo/U.S. Navy

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The Fight for Equality

The current state of America's territories could best be described as separate and unequal.

Territories pay billions of dollars in federal taxes (though, generally, not through personal income taxes). Some 20,000 people from the territories serve in the U.S. military. American Samoa has more military enlistments, per capita, than any state in the Union.

But whether the people who live there are citizens (as they are in every territory but American Samoa) or nationals (as they are in American Samoa), they don't get to vote for U.S. president. They are represented in the U.S. House of Representatives, but with a nonvoting representative. There are no territorial representatives in the U.S. Senate.

"More than 3.5 million Americans are denied the right to vote in presidential elections because they live in one of five U.S. territories.," Stacey Plaskett, the U.S. Virgin Islands' delegate to Congress, wrote in The Atlantic. "That number is equivalent to the population of the five smallest states combined."

It's more than just being able to vote for president every four years, though.

"We pay billions of dollars in federal taxes, and yet residents of U.S. territories are denied access to crucial federal support. Otherwise eligible citizens in the territories are denied Supplemental Security Income, leaving our most vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities to fend for themselves," Plaskett wrote. "Federal programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the child tax credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, are either capped or denied altogether."

Says Weare: "It's problematic for who we are as a country."

Weare's group, Equally American, pushes for equality for the people of the territories; equal representation in Congress, equal citizenship with the rest of America, and the equal rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution. The group is supporting several legal challenges to perhaps the biggest obstacle facing territorial rights, a series of six Supreme Court decisions in 1901 that has allowed the U.S. citizens (and nationals) of American territories to be treated differently from other U.S. citizens.

Those decisions, known as the Insular Cases, are considered racist by many today. That's especially concerning to the territories, where more than 98 percent of the people are racial or ethnic minorities.

Here's an excerpt from one of the 1901 decisions that set up the current fate of the territories, written by then-Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown, who also wrote the majority opinion in the controversial separate-but-equal case Plessy v. Ferguson decision five years earlier:

If those possessions [the territories] are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible.

More than 100 years have passed since those decisions, and the territories still sit, neither here nor there. The U.S. provides much to them, but the territories provide the U.S. with much, too.

All Weare and others are asking is that the people there be treated like all Americans.

"They're just so marginalized in the American mindset," Weare says. "But we've had these places for a really long time now. And it's time to grapple with that and do something about it. Whether that's statehood, or whether that's independence, or whether that's a constitutional amendment, there are different paths to solving that problem. But until we kind of come to grips with that [colonies problem], it's really hard to find the political will to address and solve these issues."

Puerto Rico
Puerto Ricans have been fighting for autonomy and full U.S. citizenship rights for more than a century.
Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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