OP-ED: America’s Territories are Not Forgotten

By: Douglas W. Domenech, U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Insular and International Affairs

Last edited 11/30/2020

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Originally Published by: The Hill

On April 15, 2020, The Hill published an opinion piece titled, The Incomplete Coronavirus Map – U.S. Territories Left Behind, in which the author linked the federal government’s coronavirus response and maps used by media outlets to a broader point of criticism on America’s treatment of the U.S. territories.  

President Trump and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Pence, have in no way forgotten the Americans residing in the U.S. territories. The President has declared COVID-19 emergency declarations for all the U.S. territories, and the territorial governors have participated in weekly calls with the president and/or vice president, wherein they have discussed the status of the government’s response to combat COVID-19 in their respective territories.

The U.S. Congress has not forgotten about the Americans residing in the U.S. territories either, having passed historic pieces of legislation in response to COVID-19, each including support for families and small businesses in American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico. Additional funding and support have also been provided to the citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS), three Pacific Island countries in a special relationship with the United States under Compacts of Free Association: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. 

In response to this unprecedented pandemic, President Trump immediately activated 42 federal departments and agencies and signed four separate stimulus bills: the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the $2 trillion CARES Act, and most recently the Paycheck Protection and Healthcare Enhancement Act, all of which included funding to support insular area governments, individuals, families, small businesses, employees, schools, hospitals, healthcare providers and public health activities. 

Each federal agency has programs that benefit the territories. For example, the Treasury's Coronavirus Relief Fund provides $3 billion specifically for the territories and the District of Columbia. The Department of Education has $153 million set aside for territories in the Education Stabilization program. Another $55 million was made available through the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Office of Insular Affairs for COVID-19 response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is providing over $8 million for PPE, testing kits and equipment. The Federal Aviation Administration announced approximately $86 million to support airports in the smaller U.S. territories.  

Individuals and families in the U.S. territories are receiving direct assistance through cash payments from the Internal Revenue Service. Individuals and families in the territories are also receiving coronavirus pandemic unemployment assistance and federal pandemic unemployment compensation from the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, Labor has extended these same pandemic unemployment benefits to the FAS. 

The President has implemented a clear and decisive “whole-of-America” strategy to combat this virus and specifically support our insular areas. The administration continues to fight every day for the American people, and the funds and support provided have been critical to families in the U.S. territories as well as the FAS. 

In the weeks and months ahead, the administration will continue to support and work with the territories to reopen their economies, get people back to work and continue to protect American lives. Together, we will overcome this crisis and emerge stronger than ever before 

Douglas W. Domenech is the Department of the Interior assistant secretary for Insular and International Affairs. You can follow him on twitter @ASIIADomenech

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