Pacific Islanders: Territorial Status and Representation

As the number of Asian-American immigrants arriving in the United States steadily rose, Pacific Islanders continued to search for ways to clarify their relationship with the United States government. In the fall of 2008, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was the last of the unincorporated U.S. territories to receive representation in Congress when it elected its first nonvoting Delegate to the House. Since the end of World War II, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and other American possessions in the Pacific grappled with persistent questions concerning political sovereignty and congressional representation. This political upheaval frequently reached the chambers of Congress, involving APA Members and Delegates in a debate that lasted more than three decades.

Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, or Micronesia

Palau/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_10_PalauFishing_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Palau was one of the islands included in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Congress created the territory, commonly referred to as Micronesia, in 1947.

The Northern Mariana Islands consist of 17 islands in the western Pacific Basin just north of the equator. Since 1898, when Guam, the southernmost island of the Marianas, was seized by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War, possession of these islands frequently changed hands. Guam eventually became a U.S. possession, and what was left of the Spanish Empire in the Pacific, including the Northern Mariana Islands, was sold to Germany in 1899. During World War I, however, Germany lost its Pacific colonies to Japan, and during World War II the U.S. military captured two Japanese-held islands (Saipan and Tinian) in the Marianas.42

At the end of hostilities in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy retained control of the Japanese South Seas Islands. On July 18, 1947, Congress agreed by joint resolution to authorize President Harry S. Truman’s approval of the Trusteeship Agreement for the Territory of the Pacific Islands. The agreement with the United Nations Security Council required the United States to “make ample provision for the political, economic, social, and educational development” of South Pacific territories, creating the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), commonly referred to as Micronesia.43

As in Guam and American Samoa, President Truman had already decided in November 1946 that the U.S. Navy would administer the TTPI on an interim basis, but traditional forms of authority based upon kinship, and which were often specific to each island, remained the basis for local governance. In 1951 President Truman ordered the transfer of administrative responsibilities over Micronesia from the U.S. Navy to the Interior Department, and throughout the 1960s the department granted Micronesians small concessions toward their own self-determination, including the creation of the Micronesian Congress in 1965.44

Hiram L. Fong/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_11_FongOffice_SHO.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office Senator Hiram L. Fong of Hawaii, shown here in his office decorated with flowers, proposed that Micronesia merge with the state of Hawaii in 1965.
Under obligations to the United Nations, Congress slowly began addressing the status of the Trust Territory in the second half of the 1960s. Senator Hiram L. Fong of Hawaii introduced S. Con. Res. 50 in August 1965, proposing that Micronesia merge with the state of Hawaii, an effort, he claimed, to push Congress to reach a consensus over the fate of the territories.45 Senator Fong was also among three Members who introduced measures to establish a commission on the TTPI in 1967.46

During the 91st Congress (1969–1971), Representative Mink introduced bills to clarify Micronesia’s status by either providing for a Trust Territory Organic Act or by authorizing a Micronesian constitutional convention. “Mr. Speaker, all the people of the Pacific who live under the American flag make up my larger unofficial constituency. To these people who have no voice in the governance of their lives I believe all of us owe a special responsibility,” Mink said. “Regrettably in our busy lives we do not have the time to devote to these voiceless, powerless, subjugated peoples living on the remote coral atolls of the Pacific.”47 But it soon became clear that no House action would take place unless various agencies of jurisdiction within the federal government agreed to give the TTPI a greater level of autonomy.

Micronesia Flies Apart

In September 1969, officials from three key executive departments—State, Defense, and Interior—began meeting with delegates from the Micronesian Congress’s joint committee on future status. The discussions were slow initially. The United States was hesitant to relinquish military control over the region and, while many in the TTPI expressed a desire for independence, the Northern Mariana district representatives went the other way in the hopes of creating a permanent relationship with the United States.48

Phillip Burton/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_12_PBurton_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Representative Phillip Burton of California introduced legislation to create the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in 1975.

This had been a goal of the Northern Marianas since the 1960s, when the district legislature sponsored a series of plebiscites on the chain’s future political status that reaffirmed the electorate’s desire to reunite with nearby Guam, citing the neighboring island’s economic progress. The passage of the Guam Organic Act of 1950 had only strengthened the reunification movement. Guamanians, however, rejected a referendum proposing to join the Northern Marianas in 1969.49 The Saipanese—those living in the Northern Mariana Islands’ largest and most populous island, Saipan—were most comfortable with English and felt economically burdened by the rest of Micronesia. After Guam’s rejection, they more aggressively pursued their own agreement.50

By the early 1970s, the situation in Micronesia grew tense and, on February 19, 1971, Northern Mariana officials threatened to leave the Trust Territory. The very next day a fire set by an unknown arsonist destroyed the legislative chambers of the Micronesian Congress in Saipan. The entire Northern Mariana delegation then boycotted a special session scheduled for later in the year.51

Northern Mariana officials began negotiating directly with the United States over the chain’s political status, retaining a law firm to represent their interests in the capital and establishing the Political Status Commission in 1972. The Northern Marianas also sent representatives to the United Nations Trusteeship Council to report the islands’ desire to negotiate for a closer association with the United States, separate from the rest of Micronesia.52

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Associated States

Negotiations on the future status of the Northern Mariana Islands opened on December 13, 1972, and continued for two years. The final agreement allowed for local governance of the islands, but gave the United States the right to control defense and foreign affairs. All federal tax revenue would return to the islands’ coffers in addition to an annual federal grant. Finally, it provided for a constitutional convention to outline the new government.53

On February 15, 1975, representatives of the Northern Marianas and the U.S. government signed the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America, and the Mariana district legislature approved it five days later. On June 17, 1975, 95 percent of registered voters in the Marianas participated in a plebiscite monitored by the United States; 78.8 percent voted approval of the covenant.54

H.J. Res. 549 Signing/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_13_SigningHJRes549_FordLibrary.xml Image courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration President Gerald R. Ford signs H.J. Res. 549 into law on February 24, 1976, to form the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
President Gerald R. Ford officially informed the U.S. Congress of the covenant and sent a proposed joint resolution on July 1, 1975. Legislation introduced by California Representative Phillip Burton, who chaired the Interior Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Affairs, creating the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) moved swiftly through the House. It unanimously passed the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and cleared the House by voice vote before the end of the month. Guam Delegate Antonio Borja Won Pat conveyed his constituents’ support for the measure as well as his desire “that this union will usher in a new era of good will, mutual cooperation and eventual union of all Chamorros in the Marianas.” With minor changes, the Senate concurred on February 24, 1976. In an East Room ceremony on March 24, 1976, President Ford signed the joint resolution into law.55

The CNMI was the only part of the Trust Territory to remain directly tied to the United States as a commonwealth. After a long period of negotiations with the U.S. government and several popular referenda, three independent states emerged from the remnants of the TTPI: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. By the end of the 1980s, Congress had passed legislation that formalized a Compact of Free Association between these three island states and the U.S. government. The United States agreed to provide military defense and financial aid while retaining the right to military bases and other strategic considerations.56

Guam’s Pursuit of Commonwealth Status

Antonio Borja Won Pat Lapel Pin/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_14_WonPatButton_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A campaign button touts Antonio Borja Won Pat’s experience. Won Pat served as the Delegate from Guam in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1984.

For Guamanians, CNMI’s commonwealth agreement had bolstered a desire to negotiate one of their own.57 The struggle for greater political autonomy continued with a new Territorial Delegate, Democrat Robert A. Underwood, who had defeated the Republican incumbent Ben Garrido Blaz in 1992. Underwood introduced the Guam Commonwealth Act (H.R. 1521) in late March 1993.58 The measure called for the creation of a commonwealth with full self-government, the preservation of Chamorro culture, and the “mutual consent” of Guam and the United States when considering federal policies affecting the territory. The bill also sent an important signal, that Guam remained interested in achieving commonwealth status. But progress remained fitful during the first part of President William J. (Bill) Clinton’s administration, in part because of staff turnover in the Interior Department office handling the negotiations.59

President William J. (Bill) Clinton and Robert A. Underwood/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_15_ClintonUnderwood_ClintonLibrary.xml Image courtesy of the William J. Clinton Library/National Archives and Records Administration President William J. (Bill) Clinton speaks with Guam Delegate Robert A. Underwood during a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus meeting in 1998.
In 1997 Underwood took to the House Floor to ask his colleagues to consider commonwealth status for Guam. “The 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War marks an important time period for the United States to, in a sense, come face to face with its imperial past,” Underwood declared, “and come face to face with what hopefully will be in the next century a more perfect union not only for the 50 States and the District of Columbia, but all the people who live under the American flag.”60 A House Resources Committee hearing in October 1997, however, marked the end of commonwealth negotiations. The Interior Department pointed to four major demands by Guam that it could not support: insisting that the commonwealth government would have veto power over legislation or regulations applying to Guam; limiting decisions on Guam’s political status to Chamorros at the exclusion of other U.S. citizen residents; transferring control over immigration and labor policy to the commonwealth; and creating a joint commission with authority to determine the transfer of military lands in Guam.61 With the two sides unable to agree on the details, the negotiations ended. On the centennial of the United States capturing Guam in 1998, Delegate Underwood, disappointed, spoke of “a relationship that has not been fully consummated. It is not like a wedding anniversary, but more the recognition of the date when two people first met and began a relationship.”62

CNMI Congressional Representation

Largely because of the territory’s small population, the CNMI commonwealth legislation failed to include language about its representation in the U.S. Congress. During the covenant negotiations, Mariana representatives had proposed the creation of a nonvoting Delegate once the territory’s population reached 50,000 people. The 1970 Census had recorded 9,640 inhabitants in the Mariana district, far smaller than the other territories that gained a Delegate in the 1970s: Guam, 84,996; the U.S. Virgin Islands, 62,468; and American Samoa, 27,159.63 But U.S. negotiators argued that only Congress could approve a nonvoting Delegate and did not include it in the covenant draft.64

Donna Christensen/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_16_DChristensen_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Donna Christensen, Delegate of the Virgin Islands, worked to establish a nonvoting Delegate for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The first Delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, was seated in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009.
As the only U.S. territory without an elected representative in Washington, CNMI followed the strategy other territories had used by sending an unofficial representative—one they called a “resident agent”—to lobby Congress and the executive branch starting in 1979.65 “I cannot speak for the CNMI on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Pedro A. Tenorio, the CNMI’s fourth unofficial representative, noted in his testimony before a House subcommittee in 2007, “nor can I defend my people except as an invited witness at hearings such as this one.”66

In the House, Guam’s Delegates often looked after the interests of the CNMI. In January 1997, Delegate Underwood introduced a bill to grant the CNMI a nonvoting Delegate, but nothing came of it in either the 105th or 106th Congresses (1997–2001). But by 2000 Census data put the CNMI population at 69,221, well above the threshold for the territories receiving congressional representation in the 1970s.67 Underwood introduced his CNMI Delegate bill again in May 2001 during the 107th Congress (2001–2003). “Right now, every American is represented, either full, by their representatives and senators, or partially, like the people of Guam, by the delegate,” noted an Underwood spokeswoman. “The only people who are not are the residents of the CNMI.”68 The bill made it out of committee, but the House did not take it up. By the next Congress, Underwood had left Capitol Hill to run for governor of Guam.

Delegate Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands eventually took up the mantle, introducing H.R. 3079 in the 110th Congress (2007–2009) on July 18, 2007. The bill to amend the commonwealth covenant extended U.S. immigration laws to the CNMI and provided for a nonvoting Delegate. According to Christensen, closing immigration loopholes to the CMNI provided leverage for the creation of the Delegate position, and she emphasized the strategic, national-security value of both Guam and the CNMI. The bill easily passed the House by voice vote. Bundled with nearly 60 other noncontroversial House-passed bills as S. 2739, it cleared the Senate and became law on May 8, 2008. The following November CNMI elected its first Territorial Delegate, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan.69

Next Section


42Arnold H. Leibowitz, Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989): 484–487.

43Trusteeship Agreement for the Territory of the Pacific Islands, 80th Cong., 1st sess., H. Doc. 378 (1947); Public Law 80-204, 61 Stat. 397 (1947).

44Leibowitz, Defining Status: 493, 499–500; Howard P. Willens and Deanne C. Seimer, An Honorable Accord: The Covenant between the Mariana Islands and the United States (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002): 3–5. Shortly thereafter the islands of Saipan and Tinian were returned to naval command. The two Marianas Islands came under the Interior Department again in 1962 after a plebiscite in early 1961 that indicated little support for continued naval administration of the islands. See Leibowitz, Defining Status: 527n19.

45“Study of Annexation of Pacific Islands Urged,” 5 August 1965, Los Angeles Times: 19.

46In the 90th Congress (1967–1969), Fong introduced S. Con. Res. 24; Representative Jonathan Bingham of New York introduced H.J. Res. 594; and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana introduced S.J. Res. 96. The Johnson administration then put forward its own proposal (S.J. Res. 106) introduced by Washington Senator Henry Jackson. Hearings were held on the administration’s joint resolution by the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee leading to its Senate passage in late May 1968. The House, though, took no action before the end of the Congress. See Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, The Covenant to Establish A Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 94th Cong., 1st sess., S. Rept. 433 (22 October 1975): 38–39.

47Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (4 August 1969): 22138.

48Leibowitz, Defining Status: 501.

49Observers thought the vote was poorly organized and badly publicized, hiding a greater desire for reunification. Others suspected lingering bad feelings from the Japanese occupation of Guam when people from the Northern Marianas assisted in the occupation. Leibowitz, Defining Status: 527–528.

50Ibid., 528; Willens and Siemer, An Honorable Accord: 7, 22–23.

51Leibowitz, Defining Status: 528–529; Willens and Siemer, An Honorable Accord: 24.

52The Covenant to Establish A Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: 56, 62; Leibowitz, Defining Status: 528–529.

53“Mariana Islands,” CQ Almanac, 1976, 32nd ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1977): 264–266,

54Leibowitz, Defining Status: 520, 532.

55Gerald R. Ford, “Letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate Transmitting Proposed Legislation To Provide Commonwealth Status for the Northern Mariana Islands,” 1 July 1975, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, (accessed 26 April 2016); Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (21 July 1975): 23670; Gerald R. Ford, “Remarks Upon Signing Legislation Approving the Covenant Establishing Commonwealth Status for the Northern Mariana Islands,” 24 March 1976, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, (accessed 20 April 2016); Public Law 94-241, 90 Stat. 263 (1976).

56Leibowitz, Defining Status: 508, 639–653. The Compact of Free Association was established between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands on January 14, 1986, while the Compact with the Republic of Palau was approved “in principle” on November 14, 1986. Compact of Free Association Act, Public Law 99-239, 99 Stat. 1770 (1986); Public Law 99-658, 100 Stat. 3672 (1986). After seven failed referenda, Palau finally ratified the agreement in 1994, when 75 percent of the population approved of the Compact, as required by the Palau Constitution. See Robert G. Sutter, “Palau: Briefing Paper,” Report 95-40 S, 23 December 1994, Congressional Research Service.

57For opinions on reunification in the late 1970s, see “A Unified Guam and Marianas? It’s Marianas’ Turn to Say ‘No,’” 24 October 1976, Pacific Daily News (Guam): 3.

58Its numerical designation had been chosen with care. Ferdinand Magellan had “allegedly discovered Guam” in 1521. See Vivian Loyola Dames, “Rethinking the Circle of Belonging: American Citizenship and the Chamorros of Guam” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2000): 527.

59Dames, “Rethinking the Circle of Belonging”: 498n121.

60Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (10 February 1997): H401.

61Hearing before the House Committee on Resources, H.R. 100, H.R. 2370, and S. 210, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (29 October 1997): 24.

62Quoted in Dames, “Rethinking the Circle of Belonging”: 55.

63Census of Population and Housing, vol. 1: Characteristics of the Population, parts 54–58 (Washington, DC, issued July 1973), (accessed 15 June 2016).

64Willens and Siemer, An Honorable Accord: 184–185.

65Dames, “Rethinking the Circle of Belonging”: 501n130; Willens and Siemer, An Honorable Accord: 185.

66Hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Current Economic, Social, and Security Conditions of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (19 April 2007): 13.

67Gebe Martinez, “Derogatory Rohrabacher Remarks Anger Guam,” 18 January 1997, Los Angeles Times: 14; Steve Limtiaco, “Underwood Wants Delegate Seat for CNMI,” 25 May 2001, Pacific Daily News (Guam): n.p.; Recent Population Trends for the U.S. Island Areas: 2000 to 2010, Report P23-213, prepared by Justyna Goworowska and Steven Wilson, U.S. Census Bureau (Washington, DC, issued April 2015).

68Limtiaco, “Underwood Wants Delegate Seat for CNMI.”

69Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (11 December 2007): H15224; Consolidated Natural Resources Act, Public Law 110-229, 122 Stat. 754 (2008).