"Commonwealth" does not describe a political status, and has been applied to states and territories. When used for U.S. non-states, the term describes a self-governed area with a constitution whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by Congress.
The United States from 1868 to 1876, including nine organized and two unorganized territories
Politically and economically, the territories are underdeveloped. People in U.S. territories cannot vote for the President of the United States, and they do not have full representation in the U.S. Congress. Territorial telecommunications and other infrastructure is generally inferior to that of the continental United States and Hawaii, and American Samoa's Internet speed was found to be slower than several Eastern European countries. Poverty rates are higher in the territories than in the states.
The U.S. has had territories since its beginning. According to federal law, the term "United States" (used in a geographical sense) means "the continental United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands". Since 1986, the Northern Mariana Islands have also been considered part of the U.S. A 2007 executive order included American Samoa in the U.S. "geographical extent", as reflected in the Federal Register.American Samoa and Jarvis Island are in the Southern Hemisphere, all other U.S. territories are in the Northern Hemisphere.
Organized territories are lands under federal sovereignty (but not part of any state) which were given a measure of self-governance by Congress through an organic act subject to the Congress's plenary powers under the territorial clause of the Constitution's Article Four, section 3.
Each territory is self-governing with three branches of government, including a locally elected governor and a territorial legislature. Each territory elects a non-voting member (a non-voting resident commissioner in the case of Puerto Rico) to the U.S. House of Representatives. They "possess the same powers as other members of the House, except that they may not vote [on the floor] when the House is meeting as the House of Representatives"; they debate, are assigned offices and staff funding, and nominate constituents from their territories to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Air Force and Merchant Marine academies. They can vote in their appointed House committees on all legislation presented to the House, they are included in their party count for each committee, and they are equal to senators on conference committees. Depending on the Congress, they may also vote on the floor in the House Committee of the Whole.
Every four years, U.S. political parties nominate presidential candidates at conventions which include delegates from the territories. U.S. citizens living in the territories cannot vote in the general presidential election, and non-citizen nationals in American Samoa cannot vote for President.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory with its own immigration system (a system separate from the United States immigration system). American Samoa also has a communal land system in which ninety percent of the land is communally owned; ownership is based on Samoan ancestry.
American Samoa: territory since 1900; after the end of the Second Samoan Civil War, the Samoan Islands were divided into two regions. The U.S. took control of the eastern half of the islands. In 1900, the Treaty of Cession of Tutuila took effect. The Manuʻa islands became part of American Samoa in 1904, and Swains Island became part of American Samoa in 1925. Congress ratified American Samoa's treaties in 1929. For 51 years, the U.S. Navy controlled the territory. American Samoa is locally self-governing under a constitution last revised in 1967.[note 14] The first elected governor of American Samoa was in 1977, and the first non-voting member of Congress was in 1981. People born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals, but not U.S. citizens. American Samoa is technically unorganized, and its main island is Tutuila.
Northern Mariana Islands: A commonwealth since 1986, the Northern Mariana Islands were part of the Spanish Empire until 1899 and part of the German Empire from 1899 to 1919. They were administered by Japan as a League of Nations mandate until the islands were conquered by the United States during World War II. They became part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) in 1947, administered by the United States as U.N. trustee. The other constituents of the TTPI were Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. A covenant to establish the Northern Mariana Islands as a commonwealth in political union with the United States was negotiated by representatives of both political bodies; it was approved by Northern Mariana Islands voters in 1975, and came into force on March 24, 1976. In accordance with the covenant, the Northern Mariana Islands constitution partially took effect on January 9, 1978, and became fully effective on November 4, 1986. In 1986, the Northern Mariana Islands formally left U.N. trusteeship. The abbreviations "CNMI" and "NMI" are both used in the commonwealth. Most residents in the Northern Mariana Islands live on Saipan, the main island.
Puerto Rico: unincorporated territory since 1899; Puerto Rico was acquired at the end of the Spanish–American War, and has been a U.S. commonwealth since 1952. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been granted U.S. citizenship. Puerto Rico was organized under the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950 (Public Law 600). In November 2008, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a series of Congressional actions have had the cumulative effect of changing Puerto Rico's status from unincorporated to incorporated. The issue is proceeding through the courts, however, and the U.S. government still refers to Puerto Rico as unincorporated. A Puerto Rican attorney has called the island "semi-sovereign". Puerto Rico has a statehood movement, whose goal is to make the territory the 51st state. See also Political status of Puerto Rico.
Except for Guam, the inhabited territories lost population in 2018. Although the territories have higher poverty rates than the mainland U.S., they have high Human Development Indexes. Four of the five territories have another official language, in addition to English.
For statistical purposes, the U.S. Census Bureau has a defined area called the "Island Areas" which consists of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (every major territory except Puerto Rico). The U.S. Census Bureau often treats Puerto Rico as its own entity or groups it with the states and D.C. (for example, Puerto Rico has a QuickFacts page just like the states and D.C.) Puerto Rico data is collected annually in American Community Survey estimates (just like the states), but data for the other territories is collected only once every ten years.
Of the five major territories, only Puerto Rico has an Article III federal district court (i.e., equivalent to the courts in the fifty states); it became an Article III court in 1966. This means that, unlike other U.S. territories, federal judges in Puerto Rico have life tenure. Federal courts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are Article IV territorial courts. The following is a list of federal territorial courts, plus Puerto Rico's court:
While the U.S. mainland is majority non-Hispanic white, this is not the case for the U.S. territories. In 2010, American Samoa's population was 92.6% Pacific Islander (including 88.9% Samoan); Guam's population was 49.3% Pacific Islander (including 37.3% Chamorro) and 32.2% Asian (including 26.3% Filipino); the population of the Northern Mariana Islands was 34.9% Pacific Islander and 49.9% Asian; and the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands was 76.0% African-American. In 2017, Puerto Rico's population was 99.0% Hispanic or Latino (including 95.8% Puerto Rican), and 68.9% white.
Throughout the 2010s, the U.S. territories (overall) lost population. The combined population of the five inhabited territories was 4,100,594 in 2010, and 3,672,195 in 2018.
The economies of the U.S. territories vary from Puerto Rico, which has a GDP of $101.131 billion in 2018, to American Samoa, which has a GDP of $634 million in 2017. In 2018, Puerto Rico exported about $18 billion in goods, with the Netherlands as the largest destination.
In 2017, Guam's GDP grew by 0.2%, the GDP of the Northern Mariana Islands grew by 25.1%, Puerto Rico's GDP shrank by 2.4%, and the U.S. Virgin Islands' GDP shrank by 1.7%. In 2017, American Samoa's GDP shrank by 5.8%, but then grew by 2.2% in 2018.
Partially privately owned by the Nature Conservancy, with much of the rest owned by the federal government and managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is an archipelago of about fifty small islands with a land area of about 1.56 sq mi (4.0 km2), about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south of Oahu. The atoll was acquired through the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii in 1898. When the Territory of Hawaii was incorporated on April 30, 1900, Palmyra Atoll was incorporated as part of that territory. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, however, an act of Congress excluded the atoll from the state. Palmyra remained an incorporated territory, but received no new, organized government. U.S. sovereignty over Palmyra Atoll (and Hawaii) is disputed by the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
The following two territories are claimed by multiple countries (including the United States), and are not included in ISO 3166-2:UM. However, they are sometimes grouped with the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. According to the GAO, "the United States conducts maritime law enforcement operations in and around Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo [Bank] consistent with U.S. sovereignty claims."
Administered by Colombia. Claimed by the U.S. (under the Guano Islands Act) and Jamaica. A claim by Nicaragua was resolved in 2012 in favor of Colombia by the International Court of Justice, although the U.S. was not a party to that case and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ.
Administered by Colombia; site of a naval garrison. Claimed by the U.S (since 1879 under the Guano Islands Act), Honduras, and Jamaica. A claim by Nicaragua was resolved in 2012 in favor of Colombia by the International Court of Justice, although the U.S. was not a party to that case and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ.
Congress decides whether a territory is incorporated or unincorporated. The U.S. constitution applies to each incorporated territory (including its local government and inhabitants) as it applies to the local governments and residents of a state. Incorporated territories are considered to be integral parts of the U.S., rather than possessions.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1901–1905 Insular Cases, ruled that the constitution extended to U.S. territories. The court also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation, in which the constitution applies fully to incorporated territories (such as the territories of Alaska and Hawaii) and partially in the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and, at the time, the Philippines (which is no longer a U.S. territory).
In the 1901 Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell, the court said that the U.S. Constitution did not fully apply in unincorporated territories because they were inhabited by "alien races". Joshua Keating of Slate.com calls the Insular Cases "bizarre and racist".
The U.S. had no unincorporated territories (also known as overseas possessions or insular areas) until 1856. Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act that year, authorizing the president to take possession of unclaimed islands to mine guano. The U.S. has taken control of (and claimed rights on) many islands and atolls, especially in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, under this law; most have been abandoned. It also has acquired territories since 1856 under other circumstances, such as under the Treaty of Paris (1898) which ended the Spanish–American War. The Supreme Court considered the constitutional position of these unincorporated territories in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, and said the following about a U.S. court in Puerto Rico:
The United States District Court is not a true United States court established under article3 of the Constitution to administer the judicial power of the United States... It is created... by the sovereign congressional faculty, granted under article 4, 3, of that instrument, of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The resemblance of its jurisdiction to that of true United States courts, in offering an opportunity to nonresidents of resorting to a tribunal not subject to local influence, does not change its character as a mere territorial court.:312
In Glidden Company v. Zdanok, the court cited Balzac and said about courts in unincorporated territories: "Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland... and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries...":547 The judiciary determined that incorporation involves express declaration or an implication strong enough to exclude any other view, raising questions about Puerto Rico's status.
The court ... today holds that in the particular case of Puerto Rico, a monumental constitutional evolution based on continued and repeated congressional annexation has taken place. Given the same, the territory has evolved from an unincorporated to an incorporated one. Congress today, thus, must afford Puerto Rico and the 4,000,000 United States citizens residing therein all constitutional guarantees. To hold otherwise, would amount to the court blindfolding itself to continue permitting Congress per secula seculorum to switch on and off the Constitution.
Had Congress intended to take the important step of changing the treaty status of Puerto Rico by incorporating it into the Union, it is reasonable to suppose that it would have done so by the plain declaration, and would not have left it to mere inference. Before the question became acute at the close of the Spanish War, the distinction between acquisition and incorporation was not regarded as important, or at least it was not fully understood and had not aroused great controversy. Before that, the purpose of Congress might well be a matter of mere inference from various legislative acts; but in these latter days, incorporation is not to be assumed without express declaration, or an implication so strong as to exclude any other view.
In 2018, a lower court ruling (Luis Segovia v. United States, in the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit) ruled that former Illinois residents living in Puerto Rico, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands cannot file absentee ballots because those regions are part of the United States.
In analyzing the Insular Cases, Christina Duffy Ponsa of the New York Times said the following: "To be an unincorporated territory is to be caught in limbo: although unquestionably subject to American sovereignty, they are not considered part of the United States for certain purposes but not others. Whether they are part of the United States for purposes of the Citizenship Clause remains unresolved."[note 19]
Supreme Court decisions about individual territories
In Rassmussen v. U.S., the Supreme Court quoted from Article III of the 1867 treaty for the purchase of Alaska:
"The inhabitants of the ceded territory... shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States..." This declaration, although somewhat changed in phraseology, is the equivalent... of the formula, employed from the beginning to express the purpose to incorporate acquired territory into the United States, especially in the absence of other provisions showing an intention to the contrary.:522
The act of incorporation affects the people of the territory more than the territory per se by extending the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution to them, such as its extension to Puerto Rico in 1947; however, Puerto Rico remains unincorporated.
Rassmussen arose from a criminal conviction by a six-person jury in Alaska under federal law. The court held that Alaska had been incorporated into the U.S. in the treaty of cession with Russia, and the congressional implication was strong enough to exclude any other view::523
That Congress, shortly following the adoption of the treaty with Russia, clearly contemplated the incorporation of Alaska into the United States as a part thereof, we think plainly results from the act of July 20, 1868, concerning internal revenue taxation... and the act of July 27, 1868... extending the laws of the United States relating to customs, commerce, and navigation over Alaska, and establishing a collection district therein... And this is fortified by subsequent action of Congress, which it is unnecessary to refer to.
Apparently, acceptance of the territory is insufficient in the opinion of the court in this case, since the result that Alaska is incorporated into the United States is reached, not through the treaty with Russia, or through the establishment of a civil government there, but from the act... extending the laws of the United States relating to the customs, commerce, and navigation over Alaska, and establishing a collection district there. Certain other acts are cited, notably the judiciary act... making it the duty of this court to assign... the several territories of the United States to particular Circuits.
In Dorr v. U.S., the court quoted Chief Justice John Marshall from an earlier case::141–2
The 6th article of the treaty of cession contains the following provision: "The inhabitants of the territories which His Catholic Majesty cedes the United States by this treaty shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution and admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States..." This treaty is the law of the land and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. It is unnecessary to inquire whether this is not their condition, independent of stipulation. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the government till Florida shall become a state. In the meantime Florida continues to be a territory of the United States, governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution which empowers Congress "to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States".
In Downes v. Bidwell, the court said: "The same construction was adhered to in the treaty with Spain for the purchase of Florida... the 6th article of which provided that the inhabitants should 'be incorporated into the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution'.":256
Justice Brown first mentioned incorporation in Downes::321–2
In view of this it cannot, it seems to me, be doubted that the United States continued to be composed of states and territories, all forming an integral part thereof and incorporated therein, as was the case prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Subsequently, the territory now embraced in the state of Tennessee was ceded to the United States by the state of North Carolina. In order to ensure the rights of the native inhabitants, it was expressly stipulated that the inhabitants of the ceded territory should enjoy all the rights, privileges, benefits, and advantages set forth in the ordinance of the late Congress for the government of the western territory of the United States.
In Downes, the court said:
Owing to a new war between England and France being upon the point of breaking out, there was need for haste in the negotiations, and Mr. Livingston took the responsibility of disobeying his (Mr. Jefferson's) instructions, and, probably owing to the insistence of Bonaparte, consented to the 3d article of the treaty (with France to acquire the territory of Louisiana), which provided that "the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States; and in the meantime they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and the religion which they profess." [8 Stat. at L. 202.] This evidently committed the government to the ultimate, but not to the immediate, admission of Louisiana as a state...:252
Phoenix Islands: disputed claim with the United Kingdom; U.S. claim ceded to Kiribati upon its independence in 1979 (Baker and Howland Islands, sometimes considered part of this group, are retained by the U.S.)
The USDA says the following about the U.S. territories (plus Hawaii):
[The U.S. territories, plus Hawaii] include virtually all the Nation's tropical forests as well as other forest types including subtropical, coastal, subalpine, dry limestone, and coastal mangrove forests. Although distant from America's geographic center and from each other—and with distinctive flora and fauna, land use history, and individual forest issues—these rich and diverse ecosystems share a common bond of change and challenge.
U.S. territories have many bird species that are endemic (not found in any other location).
Introduction of the invasive brown tree snake has harmed Guam's native bird population—nine of twelve endemic species have become extinct, and the territorial bird (the Guam rail) is extinct in the wild.
In The Not-Quite States of America, his book about the U.S. territories, Doug Mack said:
It seemed that right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation... A century or so ago, Americans didn't just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation?
The territories have made us who we are. They represent the USA's place in the world. They've been a reflection of our national mood in nearly every period of American history.
Organizations such as Facebook view U.S. territories as not being part of the United States—instead, they are viewed as equivalent to foreign countries. In response to Facebook's view, former Guam representative Madeleine Bordallo said, "It is an injustice that Americans living in the U.S. territories are not treated as other Americans living in the states. [...] Treating residents of Guam and other U.S. territories as living outside the United States and excluding them from programs perpetuates misconceptions and injustices that have long had a negative impact on our communities".
Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida said about a 2018 bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, "The hard truth is that Puerto Rico's lack of political power allows Washington to treat Puerto Rico like an afterthought." According to Governor of Puerto RicoRicardo Rosselló, "Because we don't have political power, because we don't have representatives, [no] senators, no vote for president, we are treated as an afterthought." Rosselló called Puerto Rico the "oldest, most populous colony in the world".
Rosselló and others have referred to the U.S. territories as American "colonies". David Vine of the Washington Post said the following: "The people of [the U.S. territories] are all too accustomed to being forgotten except in times of crisis. But being forgotten is not the worst of their problems. They are trapped in a state of third-class citizenship, unable to access full democratic rights because politicians have long favored the military's freedom of operation over protecting the freedoms of certain U.S. citizens." In his article How the U.S. Has Hidden Its Empire, Daniel Immerwahr of The Guardian writes, "The confusion and shoulder-shrugging indifference that mainlanders displayed [toward territories] at the time of Pearl Harbor hasn't changed much at all. [...] [Maps of the contiguous U.S.] give [mainlanders] a truncated view of their own history, one that excludes part of their country." The 2020 U.S. Census excludes non-citizen U.S. nationals in American Samoa—in response to this, Mark Stern of Slate.com said, "The Census Bureau's total exclusion of American Samoans provides a pertinent reminder that, until the courts step in, the federal government will continue to treat these Americans with startling indifference."
^Two additional territories (Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank) are claimed by the United States but administered by Colombia—if these two territories are counted, the total number of U.S. territories is sixteen.
^Some residents of Sikaiana (also known as the Stewart Islands) believe that Sikaiana is part of the United States: "They base their claim on the assertion that the Stewart Islands were ceded to King Kamehameha IV and accepted by him as part of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1856 and, thus, were part of the Republic of Hawaii (which was declared in 1893) when it was annexed to the United States by law in 1898." However, Sikaiana was not included within "Hawaii and its dependencies".
^Two territories (Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands) are called "commonwealths".
^The New York Times notes, "Even in [the four] territories, where statutory birthright citizenship has provided a makeshift solution for many decades, doubt, confusion and anxiety over the extent to which citizenship is constitutionally guaranteed have persisted for more than a century."
^Non-citizen U.S. nationals also cannot serve on a jury, vote, obtain certain government jobs, or run for office. For U.S. nationals who attempt to naturalize, there is no guarantee that they will become citizens.
^U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2 ("The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States...").
^"Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty". U.S. Department of State. Chart, under "Sovereignty", lists nine places under U.S. sovereignty that are administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island.
^ abcdefhttps://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs137.pdfIslands on the Edge: Housing Development and Other Threats to America's Pacific and Caribbean Island Forests. Susan M. Stein, Mary A. Carr, Greg C. Liknes, and Sara J. Comas. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved July 4, 2019.