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The Extent of the Civil Rights Movement Across the Geopolitical Territory of the United States by Margaret Hack

Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) are entities of the United States government, both profiting and deteriorating from federal power and control. These territories experienced changes due to the evolving laws of the United States, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under this Act, the idea of equal citizenship, as an attempt to eliminate second class citizens, has become a main concern in the U.S. and its Commonwealths. However, Puerto Ricans are still facing economic discrimination by the federal government and are thus being treated as second class citizens, resulting in an economic crisis, immigration to the U.S., and most recently, a move toward statehood. The CNMI adapted its immigration and citizenship policies due to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. In response, the workers who constitute the basis of the CNMI’s economy are facing deportation beginning in December of 2014 (Misulich 220-221). The Civil Rights Act sparked interest in equal employment opportunities across the geopolitical territories of the U.S., affecting the territories’ economic standing and political policies. These impacts are starting to render tremendous changes in the new millennium.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to end discrimination especially on the basis of race, targeting multiple aspects of American society. This Act sought to reform the employment process by addressing discrimination and treatment of employees. These issues, addressed in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, brought attention to the many acts of discrimination present in more recent years (Abbott). The legal commencement to end segregation and inequalities was based on gender, race, and national origin. Therefore, this movement greatly influenced all people under the geopolitical territories of the United States (“Employees & Job Applicants”). Commonwealths suffered from the incomplete implementation and execution of the Civil Rights Act and its principles due to the various definitions of citizenship they were afforded by the federal government.

Part 1: Puerto Rico

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed discrimination towards citizens of the United States, thus raising questions regarding the impact it would have on the Puerto Rican workforce and labor practices, the relationship between the federal government and the territory’s government, and the definition of citizenship in Puerto Rico. The Jones Act of 1917 granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, parallel to the impact of the Fourteenth Amendment for African Americans (Malavet 40-41). The Fourteenth Amendment states that all citizens have equal rights and protection under the law (“Bill of Rights and Later Amendments”). However, segregation and discrimination persisted in the United States, and thus the Civil Rights Act was created. Likewise, a portion of the U.S. constitutional protections were exempted from Puerto Rican citizens with the enactment of the Jones Act (Malavet 40-41). Personal freedoms, not fundamental rights, were withheld (Malavet 41). Personal freedoms encompass those rights listed in Amendments Four through Eight; fundamental rights were granted to the citizens of Puerto Rico (Abraham). Personal freedoms protect an individual from the government’s seizing of “private property for public use without just compensation” (“Bill of Rights and Later Amendments”). Fundamental rights permit freedom of religion and the ability for the people to appeal to the government in response to grievances (“Bill of Rights and Later Amendments”). The division of citizens into ranks undoubtedly sets Puerto Ricans apart from citizens of the United States proper: “Puerto Ricans were legally constructed as ‘others’ relative to the United States, and their citizenship as expressly inferior, that is, second class…” (Malavet 42). Puerto Ricans thus received similar treatment to that of pre-Civil Rights Act minority groups in the United States proper. Therefore, the responsibility to deconstruct the discrimination towards Puerto Ricans lies within the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Act and thus the federal government.

Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States did not prove successful until 1941, with the election of Munoz Marin (Wells 163). Since then, it has become a vital part of the U.S. economy, and citizens benefit from “federal tax exemption, free trade, [and] a common currency” (Wells 162). This lack of taxation served as a motivation for companies and businesses to expand into the Puerto Rican domain (Wells 161). Under Marin’s authority, programs were enacted that “exploited the opportunities for economic growth that had been latent all along in Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States” (Wells 163). While Marin was in office, the U.S. economy expanded, offering job opportunities to many Puerto Ricans (Wells 163). This, in turn, lowered the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico (Wells 163). Despite the evidently positive economic relationship, Marin expressed concern regarding the unfavorable political ties between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He feared an economic crisis if Puerto Rico gained statehood or complete independence (Wells 227). In 1952, Puerto Rico volunteered for and received the status of Commonwealth. In order to preserve the economic relationship with the U.S., the terms of their status lacked political ties with the federal government (Wells 237-238).

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s dismantled the dichotomy dividing formal and fundamental rights (Abraham). Puerto Rico was incorporated under the new Acts that were passed during this time in the same fashion as the fifty states, the Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (“Electronic Code of Federal Regulations”). Puerto Ricans gained full legal equality with the implementation of the Civil Rights Act. A subset of this Act is the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which states the unlawfulness of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and age (“Employees & Job Applicants.”). The incorporation of national origin in this Act produces an immeasurable effect on the Commonwealths of the United States. The citizens of Commonwealths such as Puerto Rico were now granted full rights, and within such context, the immigrants of Puerto Rico were also granted full rights. Discrimination within the geopolitical territories became subject to federal law, creating social ties between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Discrimination in Puerto Rico was not based on the same racial differentiations as in the United States. During the 1950s and early 1960s, racial differences in Puerto Rico defined people as white, black, or mixed; this classification of people based on physical features produces discrimination throughout the territory (Duany 153). People were classified as someone of African descent on the basis of physical features. The portion of the population labeled as African was often the recipient of discriminatory treatment rather than people of mixed heritage (Duany 153). Thus the notion of the “other” as defined in the United States proper did not coincide with the “others” of Puerto Rico. Only people categorized as Africans, which encompassed Dominicans, received harsher treatment. Discrimination in Puerto Rico therefore included a narrow group of people.

Despite the legal statutes prohibiting discrimination after 1964, Puerto Rico also still exhibited racial discrimination in the workforce. There was a high concentration of Dominican immigrants in the service industries in Puerto Rico, as recorded by Duany’s study of Santurce, Puerto Rico, in the 1990s (Duany 157). The persisting presence of divisions in the work force between natural -and foreign-born citizens illustrated the absent impact of the Civil Rights Act in Puerto Rico. These workers faced low paying jobs, unsafe working conditions, and a lack of opportunity for professional mobility in the workplace (Duany 157). Furthermore, it was reported that the workers in secondary segments of the labor market were “segregated by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and age” (Duany 159). People of Puerto Rican descent living in Santurce held a higher percentage of the positions in “the upper levels of the occupational structure” (Duany 158). These workers were trapped in the cycle of lower class living due to the aforementioned working conditions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act forbids such segregation on the basis of national origin to take place in the workplace. A clear disregard for this Act is illustrated by the continued segregation in the labor force in which Dominicans work. The collaboration of the federal government and the government of Puerto Rico would create an agreed upon course of action to end discrimination. However, due to the initial terms of Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status regarding a lack of political assimilation, the two governments are separate entities and are not required to work together.

Despite the lack of political ties, the economic relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico remains strong. However, the territorial status of Puerto Rico creates restriction regarding the economy’s ability to grow. The territory began borrowing money in the form of bonds in 2006 due to the lack of federal funding available in accordance with their lack of statehood (Usero). Despite the investors’ origins outside the territory, these bonds do not necessitate the investor to pay a tax to Puerto Rico, which would be required if Puerto Rico had the same rights as those of a state (Usero). Thus, the territory is losing substantial amounts of money, creating a negative impact on their economy. The idealistic economic relationship present during Marin’s governing in the 1940s and 1950s no longer exists. A forward movement towards statehood would create a strong political relationship with the U.S. without the risk of losing what was once a productive economy.

The prospect of statehood has gained support, especially in response to the minimal representation of Puerto Ricans in the federal government. The territory is represented by one member in Congress and completely lacks the ability to vote in the House of Representatives, which contributes to the minimal influence of Puerto Rican opinion in the laws by which they are governed (Wides-Munoz). Without fair representation, the territory has shown interest in statehood as an attempt to eradicate the disparities. In response to a growing number of Puerto Ricans who are dissatisfied with Commonwealth status, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich submitted legislation in February 2014 that would mandate a referendum to Puerto Ricans in the form of a vote for statehood (“Puerto Rico Statehood Resolution Introduced In Senate”). The acquisition of statehood has the potential to end the economic disparities and the withholding of federal funds and services to the territory.

Puerto Rico has illustrated an elastic relationship with the United States over the past century, tightening its ties economically and socially. The status of Commonwealth granted the beneficial connection between the economies, and the Civil Rights Act’s inclusion of Puerto Ricans created some social assimilations. The current progress towards statehood would merge the limited relationship between the two governing lands and create political stability. This stability would prove itself useful in the execution of civil laws, assimilating the two governments into a single force. The full collaboration between the two governments would ease the resolution of discrimination within Puerto Rican society.

Part II: The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

The first formation of a relationship between the United States and the fourteen Pacific islands that make up the Northern Mariana Islands occurred through the aftermath of World War II (Misulich 214). The U.S. was granted the role of trustee to a group of territories in the Pacific; all islands except the Northern Mariana Islands proclaimed independence upon the expiration of the trusteeship (Misulich 214). During the formative years of the CNMI’s relationship with the United States, the Islands’ economy suffered from an inadequate workforce (Misulich 215). Off island investors could not partake in the economic affairs of the CNMI and even U.S. citizens could not travel to the Islands under the original terms of trusteeship (Misulich 215). Thus, the Islands’ voluntary action to become a U.S. Commonwealth in 1976 rendered great changes in the political and economic structures of the CNMI Stathis 295).

Under the self-government, a free market economy grew (Borick). Foreign affairs and defense remained under the control of the United States, but the Commonwealth is exempt from federal taxes Stathis 295). The federal government of the United States agreed to limit its role in certain affairs of the CNMI, including immigration and self-constituting tripartite government (Misulich 214-215). Within this agreement, all people born in the Commonwealth, including children of guest workers, would be granted citizenship (Misulich 215).

The unique terms constituting the title of Commonwealth excluded the CNMI from the jurisdiction of the Fair Labor Standards Act, allowing an exclusive set of working laws, or lack thereof, to be administered in accordance with the CNMI government as well as immigration laws (Misulich 215-216). This presented the CNMI with a method from which workers could enter the Islands in accordance with the terms of the local government. The CNMI formed an economy reliant upon tourism and the garment industry (McPhetres 156). These areas of work required importation of workers from neighboring lands who provided labor for far less than the U.S. minimum wage (Misulich 216). The CNMI created visas that allowed for guest workers to enter and remain on the Islands for an indeterminate length of time, leading to a sufficient work force to support the growth of the economy (Misulich 216).

The garment industry and tourism created an economic boom through the use of guest workers. Guest workers immigrated from nearby Pacific countries to the CNMI for higher paying jobs and a higher standard of living (Misulich 216). The guest workers are not citizens of the CNMI, but are not limited in the duration of their residence in the CNMI (Misulich 216). The population of guest workers, or people of a different national origin, supplied the economy of the CNMI with 80 percent of its resident labor force (Camacho 691). From 1980 to 1995, the CNMI recorded an average employment growth rate of 12.7% a year (Misulich 216). Tourism and garment factories generated roughly $250 million per year in government revenue during the 1990s (McPhetres 156). The CNMI succeeded in creating a strong economy in accordance with their local government. This parallels the economic growth of Puerto Rico during the primitive years of Commonwealth status. Both economies benefited from a limited relationship with the United States.

The growing economy in the CNMI received a drastic change due to an increased interest in the labor practices on the Islands. Compared to the working conditions of the United States, CNMI faced longer work days, lack of weekends or holidays, and low living conditions. These poor conditions spurred the federal government’s involvement with the Islands (Misulich 217). The idea of proper treatment of workers pertains directly to those rights illustrated in the Civil Rights Act. Most of the workers in the CNMI were guest workers and thus originated from foreign countries. Discrimination on this basis was deemed unlawful according to the Equal Employment Act of the Civil Rights Act.

The overdue attention to this form of discrimination resulted in drastic changes with many negative impacts for the people of the CNMI. Beginning in 2005, the United States imposed laws that extracted quotas in the garment industry (Misulich 218). The proposed impact of the laws was to create better working conditions for workers, specifically those who migrated to the CNMI for higher pay (Misulich 219). This eliminated the competitive edge Saipan, the largest of the Islands, held in the industry, thus creating an economic downturn (Misulich 218). It also contributed to 92% of factory workers losing their jobs from 2001 to 2008 (Misulich 218). In 2007, the CNMI reported a total of $1.2 billion in sales and receipts (“2007 Historical Data of Island Areas (IA)”). This was a significant decrease from the $2.1 billion of total sales and receipts across the CNMI in 1997 (“1997 Economic Census of Outlying Areas”).

The latent effects of the U.S. federal government’s actions created a problematic time for the guest workers, increasing unemployment for those in factories. Therefore, the federal government affected mainly the nonnative population of the CNMI, creating a dichotomy between workers born in the CNMI and those of other national origins. A large percentage of the garment industry was based on the island of Saipan; foreign resident workers accounted for 13,000 out of the 16,000 people employed in the garment industry (Camacho 691). The majority of these factory workers originate in China, the Philippines, and Bangladesh among other Asian countries (Camacho 691). People of a different national origin than natives of the CNMI faced unsafe working conditions in low paying jobs. This directly relates to the prejudices that fueled the Civil Rights Act and the prejudices that were declared illegal through the implementation of this Act. Within this realm of workers, discriminatory acts in the workplace primarily affected women, creating a gender dichotomy (Camacho 691-692). Women were denied wages, aborted children due to lack of medical insurance, and faced severely harsh working conditions in sweatshops (Camacho 691-692). These problems violate the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, as addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decline and eventual annihilation of the garment industry in the CNMI removed women and other foreign workers from the biased and inhumane conditions of the workplace. However, the Acts that followed to create reform in the immigration system did not provide improved living conditions for this population of the CNMI. Foreign workers were indirectly targeted through the appropriation of the government’s course of action.

The federal government created legislation in an attempt to resolve the human rights violations and unfair working conditions in the CNMI. In 2008, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act was imposed, aiming to “prevent the reoccurrence of highly publicized labor and human rights abuses against CNMI guest workers that took place during the past two decades” (Misulich 217). This immigration Act targeted the majority of workers in the CNMI who originated from foreign countries, and it responded to the aforementioned violations of the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. The aim of the Consolidated Natural Resource Act pertained to the creation of fair working conditions for the foreign born citizens and guest workers in the CNMI. These workers were of various races and national origins; the exploitation of their labor coincides with the purpose of the Civil Rights Act. Immigration laws that were created under the CNMI government were overridden by the U.S. policies (Misulich 220). This created political tension and reinforced the power of the federal government over the initial self-governing system of the CNMI. The United States did not acknowledge the poor living conditions in the birth countries of guest workers, especially compared to that of the CNMI (Misulich 211-213). It is possible that the new immigration laws intended to control or limit the amount of workers entering the CNMI from foreign territories. With this aim, a smaller population of workers would lead to competitive wages being offered to potential workers. This would increase the standard wages, in turn benefitting the standard of living of the workers. It would also grant more power to the working class, allowing for improved conditions in the workplace, employee safety, and working hours. The rights of workers, regardless of national origin and race, are a subset of the aim of the Civil Rights Act. The enforcement of such rights, in accordance with the Civil Rights Act, did not appear until years after the CNMI entered the jurisdiction of federal law.

The method that the federal government chose to resolve unfair working conditions in the CNMI created worse conditions for guest workers. Under the new law, guest workers need to be in the CNMI with accordance to U.S. immigration legalities; most of the guest workers do not qualify for U.S. visas, so they face uncertain futures in a land in which they have been residing legally for decades (Misulich 212). The U.S. federal government granted a grace period in which guest workers could reside in the CNMI while applying for the proper visa, provided that the workers actually qualified for a visa (Misulich 221). In an attempt to resolve the human rights violations, the federal government itself was violating rights declared in the Civil Rights Act. However, due to the political hierarchy between the CNMI’s government and the federal government, the violation was ignored. A similar political hierarchy was exercised in the case of Puerto Rico. Both Commonwealths suffered from the federal government’s obstruction of the initial terms of their Commonwealth status.

The CNMI faced unique consequences regarding the intervention of the federal government. December of 2014 will mark the commencement of deportation for all guest workers in the CNMI who do not meet the qualifications to acquire a visa and who have not been granted one (Misulich 220-221). The deportation of those not permitted a visa under the new law will subject these people to harsher living conditions in their homelands, which in turn presents another human rights violation. This will demolish the work force of the CNMI in a time when tourism alone is the basis of the economy.

The federal government further demonstrated the political hierarchy between the two governments through the proposal regarding the island of Pagan. This island is home to pozzolan deposits, rare minerals highly useful for strengthening asphalt (McPhetres 185). Pozzolan provides a new field for economic growth in the CNMI. The United States military proposed the idea of performing exercises on the island of Pagan, with the approval of CNMI citizens (McPhetres 158). The U.S. would provide Pagan with reparations for the loss of potential developments (McPhetres 158). The approval on behalf of the citizens of the CNMI excludes the opinion of the guest workers. These workers would be employed to excavate the pozzolan deposits, so they make up the population whose jobs are in jeopardy if the U.S. military were to utilize the land instead. The definition of citizenship through the federal government restricts the proper representation of the CNMI’s opinion in the matter. The disregard for the opinion of the majority of the CNMI’s residents illustrates the lack of representation the Commonwealth holds. Just as Puerto Rico is limited in their representation in Congress, so is the CNMI limited in their control of the laws under which they are governed. The lack of voting rights for the people of the Commonwealths mirrors the history of African Americans in the United States. A universal definition of citizenship agreed upon by the federal and local governments is crucial. Had the federal government accepted guest workers, who participate in the societies and economies of the CNMI, as part of the voting population, the fate of the pozzolan reserves could be altered. Opportunity for employment of guest workers is thus placed in the hands of another social group.

Part III: Conclusion

The implementation of the Civil Rights Act in the CNMI sparked social, economic, and political change. Working conditions for those legally allowed in the CNMI have been reformed, creating an economic crisis. Simultaneously, the power needed to execute these changes has undermined the local government and the original terms agreed upon regarding the status of Commonwealth. The federal government has incorporated parts of the local government in their jurisdiction, against the initial terms of the Commonwealth. The uncertain future of the CNMI, regarding their economy, population, and political power could be solved in part by a progression towards statehood. The potential for the CNMI to move toward statehood could be influenced by Puerto Rico’s decision to pursue statehood. Both Puerto Rico and the CNMI faced an economic crisis and political transgressions. Laws and hierarchy of governments would be clear and concrete. The workers would benefit from full incorporation under all U.S. labor laws, merging the workforce of the United States proper and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealths also suffered from unclear definitions of citizenship. A common definition would assimilate the governments and the people of the territories, creating a single, cohesive nation. The similar predicaments and treatments of the Commonwealths contribute to the common solution of statehood.

The Civil Rights Act has catalyzed the series of events and reform in each Commonwealth. Its purpose was clear. However, greater measures are necessary to allow the Commonwealths to return to a time of progress. Puerto Rico and the CNMI exhibit similar circumstances within their relationships with the United States proper. The economic and political statuses of each Commonwealth underwent drastic changes in response to the federal government’s attempt to fully execute the rights as stated in the Civil Rights Act. Economic and political spheres are in dire need of aid, especially with the pressing issue of a labor force facing deportation in the CNMI. Puerto Rico has exhibited an attempt at forward mobility through a petition for statehood. The complete assimilation of the Commonwealths under federal law will prevent the reoccurrence of social, political, and economic disparities in the geopolitical territories of the United States.

Works Cited

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“2007 Historical Data of the Economic Census of Island Areas (IA).” Census Bureau Homepage. N.p., 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://www.census.gov/&gt;.

Abbott, Melanie B. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Major Acts of Congress. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 109-15. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

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Camacho, Keith L. “After 9/11: Militarized Borders and Social Movements in the Mariana  Islands.” American Quarterly 64 (2012): 684-713. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

Duany, Jorge. “Reconstructing Racial Identity: Ethnicity, Color, and Class among Dominicans in   the United States and Puerto Rico.” Latin American Perspectives 25 (1998): 147-72. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

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Malavet, Pedro A. America’s Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico. New York: New York UP, 2004. Web.

McPhetres, Samuel F. “Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific 24.1 (2012): 156-63. Print.

Misulich, Robert J. “Federal Immigration Law in the CNMI.” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association (2011): 211-35. Print.

“Puerto Rico Statehood Resolution Introduced In Senate.” Huffington Post. 12 Feb 2014. Web. 6 March 2014.

Stathis, Stephen W. “Commonwealth Status Granted to Northern Mariana Islands.” Landmark    Legislation, 1774-2002: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2003. 295. Print.

Usero, Adriana. “U.S. Partially to Blame for Puerto Rico Debt Crisis, Representative in Congress Says.” Huffington Post. 26 Feb 2014. Web 6 March 2014.

Wells, Henry. The Modernization of Puerto Rico; a Political Study of Changing Values and Institutions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969. Print.

Wides-Munoz, Laura. “Statehood Remains an Uneasy Question for Puerto Ricans.” Washington Post. 1 Dec 2013. Web. 6 March 2014.

Margaret Hack is a sophomore majoring in English at SUNY New Paltz. She hopes to explore different rhetorical strategies and incorporate her interests in sociology and environmental studies in her writing.

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