(Washington) President George W. Bush today signed an executive order to re-establish the Interagency Group on Insular Areas, which will coordinate federal policy towards Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Flanked by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta and Guam Governor Felix P. Camacho, the president signed the executive order at a White House ceremony to commemorate Asian-Pacific Heritage Month.
Secretary Norton, whose department administers the federal government's relationship with the insular areas, hailed the re-establishment of the IGIA. "I'm delighted that the president has demonstrated his appreciation and concern for the special issues faced by the territories," said Norton, who will chair the IGIA.
Norton, who had sent a letter to President Bush requesting that the IGIA be re-established, noted the significance of the president's having signed the executive order during the celebration of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month. "This will help the Pacific Islanders and others who live in Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas," said Norton. "It will also be a great benefit to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It will enable the federal government to address the territories' unique concerns in a coordinated, efficient manner."
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior David Cohen, who also attended the signing ceremony, said that policies designed for the 50 states must be carefully analyzed to determine if they make sense for the territories. "As an example, people born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens," said Cohen. "When Congress passed a law requiring all airport screeners to be U.S. citizens, it meant that American Samoans could not be airport screeners at their own airport. That problem has been corrected, but all of the territories have special issues that need to taken into account. All of the territories are much poorer and less developed than the poorest states. Each territory faces unique issues arising from its remote location, its special legal status and its lack of resources. Policies designed for the 50 states may not fit properly in the territories. The IGIA will be able to spot those cases and recommend appropriate adjustments." Cohen heads the Office of Insular Affairs, which is responsible for developing and administering policy towards the insular areas on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior.
The IGIA will consist of the heads of each department in the executive branch and the heads of those other agencies that the Secretary of the Interior designates. The group will have an annual meeting to which the governors of the insular areas will be invited and will otherwise meet as appropriate.
The IGIA will be responsible for identifying issues that affect the insular areas and will make recommendations to the president and other appropriate officials regarding those issues. The IGIA will consult with governors, delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives and other elected representatives from the insular areas, as well as members of Congress, in the process of fulfilling its mandate.
President Clinton created the original IGIA by executive memorandum in 1999. The executive memorandum had no legal effect upon the expiration of the Clinton administration, and so the original IGIA did not automatically continue into the Bush administration. Because of Puerto Rico's special status, Puerto Rican issues, unlike those of the other territories, are not administered by the Secretary of the Interior but rather are administered directly by the White House. Puerto Rico was not included in the original IGIA nor in the IGIA reconstituted by President Bush today.