Inocencia Freeman, who lives in Road Town, said she received her belonger’s card last year, after 18 years of residing in the territory. This year, she intends to vote for the first time.

“I’m from Santo Domingo, but my father’s from here,” Ms. Freeman said. Asked what changes she would like to see in the Virgin Islands, she said she would like to see residents born here and abroad treated equally.

“I want them working with everybody equal,” she said.

An expanded definition of belongership under the 2007 Virgin Islands Constitution has encouraged new voters, like Ms. Freeman, to register, officials said.

“A person of the second generation born abroad, [descended from] somebody who was born in the Virgin Islands, is a belonger,” said Complaints Commissioner Elton Georges, a former deputy governor. In other words, anyone born abroad, with a grandparent who is a Virgin Islander by birth, is automatically a belonger.

And belongers age 18 and older are eligible to vote in VI general elections under the Constitution, provided they meet residency and other requirements.

A 2007 provision granting belongership to second-generation descendents follows a string of related changes in recent decades.

Under the 1976 Constitution, belongership was limited to those deemed British subjects, Mr. Georges said. A 1981 United Kingdom law defined a British subject as “a national of a Commonwealth country,” he said, referring to the 54-nation group that mostly includes countries once part of the British empire.

Until 1983, British subjecthood didn’t pass from mother to child, and didn’t pass from father to child unless the parents were married, he said, describing conditions that no longer attach to belongership under the current Constitution.

“You had a number of offspring of BVI persons being born in the USVI — many — but because of the peculiarity of British nationality laws, those persons were not British,” Mr. Georges said.

Under a 2000 amendment, the British subjecthood requirement was removed for Virgin Islanders’ children born abroad, and the 2007 Constitution effectively made the second generation born abroad into belongers, regardless of citizenship, he said.

“In our context, that ‘abroad’ would refer mainly to the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic,” he said, citing historic emigration patterns.

Newly registered

Some of those new belongers were registered between the inception of the Constitution in June 2007 and the previous general elections later that year, and more have registered since, he said.

And voter registrations are up, too, said Juliette Penn, the territory’s supervisor of elections.

“A lot more persons are registering to vote,” Ms. Penn said in a recent interview. “It’s a vast difference.”

On one recent day, the Elections Office received more than 40 voter registration and transfer applications, she said.

Mr. Georges said he was unaware of any official estimate of how many new belongerships were created by the 2007 Constitution, but he estimates there are “hundreds, if not going into the thousands” in the Dominican Republic and potentially a “sizeable number” in the USVI.

“Very few probably have come [to the territory],” he added, meaning they would not be eligible to vote in the upcoming elections.

DR belongers

Luis Vanterpool, who is in the midst of setting up a foundation to support the Hispanic community in the VI, said he has been encouraging belongers from the Dominican Republic to register.

VIslanders and other Leeward Islanders seeking work, particularly in the sugar cane industry, resettled in the Dominican Republic during the 20th Century, and intermarried among themselves and with people from the Dominican Republic, he explained.

“My father, his first marriage, was to a lady from Nevis,” Mr. Vanterpool said, explaining that his father resettled in the Dominican Republic after leaving his native Anegada.

“He widowed, and then he married my mother,” he said. “My mother is from the Dominican Republic, but my grandmother on my mother’s side was from French St. Martin.”

Since the 1980s, descendants of those VIslanders who left have made the same migration in reverse as the VI economy has thrived, he said.

“Those who are left in Santo Domingo, the descendants, are now literally doing the trip back. What our parents did from here to Santo Domingo, we’re doing from there back to here,” he said.

And, under the 2007 Constitution, those returnees are belongers, regardless of their ancestors’ marital status and whether their VI antecedents were male or female, he said.

“A great number of people, specifically from the Dominican Republic — Hispanic Virgin Islanders — are now acquiring their belonger’s card who before did not qualify,” Mr. Vanterpool said.

He aims to assist them in assimilating into VI society and overcoming potential discrimination, he said, explaining that he has already worked with the Passport Office to eliminate delays in issuing belonger’s cards caused by the office’s initial reluctance to accept identification issued in the Dominican Republic.

“In order to get these [sorts of] problems solved, the best way is you need to have some sort of political clout,” he said. “Therefore, one of our basic goals is to work getting the Hispanic Virgin Islander to register to vote.”


Once those belongers are registered, they can also advocate for other Spanish-speaking residents who may face problems in getting work permits or immigration approval, Mr. Vanterpool said.

He was unsure of the number of registered voters from the Dominican Republic, since the registration campaign has chiefly proceeded by word of mouth, but said he has personally reached out to between 30 and 50 potential voters. The Hispanic belongers are chiefly located in East End and Sea Cows Bay, he said, with some also settled in the Sixth District and on Virgin Gorda.

In future elections, once the foundation is established, Mr. Vanterpool said, he hopes it will be able to arrange meetings for Hispanic voters to share their concerns with candidates. He also hopes to be able to arrange such meetings this election cycle, he said.

Of course, the relative clout of any newly registered voters, from the Dominican Republic or elsewhere, may also depend on whether they make it to the polls come election time.

“We don’t know how the turnout is going to be,” said Ms. Penn, the elections supervisor. “If [new voters do turn out], we expect that the lines will be fairly long, but we’ll able to deal with it.”