23 May 2010

Proposed USVI Constitution Presented to US Senate Committee

On the precise day that the United Nations Decolonisation Committee was convening a high-level seminar in Noumea, New Caledonia to examine the democratic deficit in the political dependency arrangements in the US Virgin Islands and other non-self-governing territories, the proposed US Virgin Islands Constitution which seeks to modernise the parametres of that territory's existing political status was being presented for consideration by the United States Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both events took place on 19th May 2010. OTR will shortly publish a selection of the territorial government presentations and expert papers presented at the UN seminar. The statement of the President of the US Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention at the Senate hearing follows.

Statement by Gerard Luz Amwur James II, President
Fifth Constitutional Convention of the U.S. Virgin Islands
to the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
May 19, 2010

Good Morning Chairman Bingaman, Committee members and all others present.

I am Gerard Luz Anwur James II, President of the Fifth Constitutional Convention of the Unites States Virgin Islands ("Convention"). It is my distinct honor to address this Committee.

The proposed constitution was drafted by the people and for the people of the United States Virgin Islands. It is not proposed to govern any other people. The people who have made negative comments about the document have not worn the shoes of those who have suffered the indignation of being governed externally. They have not examined the evidence that led the Convention to adopt provisions in this constitution that are so necessary to keep life going for those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grand parents have worked hard in order to own property that would provide life for themselves and their future generations. The critics have not reviewed the evidence that shows that those whose ancestry lies in the Virgin Islands have been devastated by the lack of support for the people of the Virgin Islands.

The evidence demonstrates that the territory has 114,000 residents and that more than 58,000 Virgin Islanders no longer reside in the Virgin Islands. These people now live in the mainland United States. Simple math resolves that this lost represents about one-half of the current population of the Virgin Islands. This exodus must stop or the Virgins Islands’ life blood will cease to exist. Extinction of the native people of the Virgin Islands is not an acceptable option.

The life blood of any people lies in its young. Historically, people of this great country work to provide a better life for their young with the hope that they will prosper from their parent's labor. The young of the Virgin Islands are leaving because their parents cannot pass on to them the home that had been in their family for decades. Unlike the mainland, the values of the homes in the Virgin Islands have soared due to the many tourist developments. These developments have caused the taxes on the ancestral home to be well beyond the ability of many families to pay. Their homes have been taken from them. Even worst is the plight of our young who remain and resort to violence in an effort to acquire something they can call their own. I sit as a witness to the lost of these young lives. As a funeral director, I daily look into the eyes of the young and see the absence of hope they once suffered. The Convention has compelling reasons for the provisions that are contained in the document.

The provisions in this constitution as they relate to "natives" is not new to this Congress. This body has recognized that the native people of this country and its territories at times need special protections in order for the native people to exist. The Congress of the United States has enacted laws for native people in Hawaii, Alaska, the Northern Marianas, Aleutians and the continental United States. Congress did not deny those provisions in advance because of alleged unconstitutionality. Congress knew that Constitutional challenges to a specific provision of law cannot be resolved by any litmus-paper test. Congress knew that constitutionality is determined on a case-by-case basis.

It was the United States government that established the definitions contained in the proposed constitution. These definitions should not bring suspicion or challenge as being improper. These definitions are derived directly from the Government of the United States. It was an act of Congress that differentiated the people of the Virgin Islands and conferred different legal status upon them by virtue of 8 U.S.C. §1406. It was this act of Congress that carved out certain rights for “natives.” To the best of my knowledge, these provisions have not been challenged or overturned.

The Fifth Constitutional Convention’s fact gathering process included public meetings throughout the Virgin Islands. The Convention heard testimony from hundreds, reviewed formal presentations and documents.

Everyone in this room including the Justice Department is fully aware that our proposed constitution is not designed to usurp the sovereignty or supremacy of federal law. The passage of our constitution will not, nor is it intended to, alter our political relationship with the United States. It merely represents a further step along the path toward a full measure of self-dignity.

We strongly believe that the constitution's provisions are not discriminatory, do not violate federal law and support a Constitutional appropriate interest. Throughout our history our shores have remained open to people of all cultures and ethnicities. The Virgin Islands has long been known as the ‘American Paradise.” The proposed constitution is our sincere effort to insure that our beloved territory remains our “Virgin Islands Home.”

We asked that Congress approve the proposed constitution with all of its present provisions. At the very least we ask that the constitution be returned with no action.

I am aware that Congress is considering a resolution to urge the Convention to reconvene. We do not ask this, but if the resolution passes, we ask that Congress in the resolution provide the financial resources that would be necessary for the Convention to reconvene. We ask that Congress allow the Convention, after reconvening, to place the proposed constitution before the voters of the territory without further need to send the document to the Governor of the Virgin Islands, who has tried in every way to circumvent the will of the people. We further ask that the requirement to send the proposed constitution back to the President and Congress be eliminated.

This is our fifth attempt to attain greater self-government since Congress passed PL 94-584 in 1976, which granted us the authority to draft our own constitution. You need to know how important this Constitution is to the Virgin Islands. This proposed constitution has helped to breathe new life and hope into our people. It is the talk of every radio and television show. It is the topic of daily conversation. People now believe that their life-long dreams will come true. These pieces of paper may not mean much to many in this room, but it means life to the people of the United States Virgin Islands.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.