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May 25th, 2021
Nat. Resources Committee Releases Explainer, Firsthand Constituent Stories on Harmful Effects of Insular Cases Rulings & Territorial Incorporation Doctrine

Washington, D.C. – Ahead of an expected landmark Supreme Court ruling this fall, the Natural Resources Committee today published an overview of the legal and economic damage done to generations of American citizens and American nationals living in the U.S. territories by the legal legacy of the Insular Cases rulings and broad legal reliance on the so-called territorial incorporation doctrine. The overview, available online at, includes firsthand stories from Natural Resources Committee members’ constituents who are unable to access federal services that are taken for granted on the mainland.

The explainer comes ahead of and expected landmark legal ruling this fall, when the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, a case that centers on whether a resident of Puerto Rico is eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

U.S. Territories – the islands around the world now belonging to the United States due to military invasions or diplomatic negotiations – have been home to some of the most flagrant denials of equal treatment under the law in modern American history. Despite being U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals, millions of Americans do not enjoy the same rights guaranteed by the Constitution as those who live in the fifty states thanks to the territorial incorporation doctrine, which holds territories as subject to the laws of the United States but territorial residents as unequal in legal stature to mainland residents.

That doctrine has combined with a series of 1901 Supreme Court rulings now collectively referred to as the Insular Cases, which rely on a racist, Plessy-era doctrine of “separate and unequal” to establish the relationship between the United States and its territories and are full of references to “alien races” and “people with an uncivilized race.”

As a consequence of this now thoroughly discredited legacy, territorial residents are in many cases not eligible for federal programs like SSI, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which are designed to mitigate poverty across the country. While the consequences of this unequal legal treatment get scant attention on the mainland, it is often a matter of life and death in territories where poverty rates are comparable to the United States at the height of the Great Depression. In 2019, the Census Bureau showed that more than 65 percent of residents in American Samoa lived below the federal poverty line, and in Puerto Rico the number was close to 40 percent.

The newly released Committee overview of the issue, published on Medium, includes stories from several people who have suffered directly from this unequal treatment.

Chair Grijalva and several colleagues representing U.S. territories introduced a resolution in late March urging the federal government and other litigants to stop relying on the Insular Cases as legal precedent. In this Congress, they have prioritized advancing legislation to expand access to federal programs and extend full voting rights to Americans residing in U.S. Territories.

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