Supreme Court Denies Appeal for U.S. Citizenship for American Samoans
posted by Randall
By Ed Diokno
It was Samoans vs. Samoans. That made it easier for the U.S. Supreme Court to turn down an appeal that would have granted automatic citizenship to residents of American Samoa.
By declining to review the appeal of Tuaua vs. the United States, the decision of the lower court stands. American Samoa is the only overseas U.S. territory without birthright U.S. citizenship.
Lene Tuaua of American Samoa.
“We’re obviously very disappointed. This means there will be many Samoans living in California, including veterans, who will not be able to vote in November,” said Neil Weare, a civil rights lawyer and president of We the People Project, which sponsored the lawsuit brought by the Samoan Federation of America, based in Carson, California.
Current law considers American Samoans to be “nationals,” not full citizens like those born in Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories. Nationals are allowed to work and live anywhere in the United States, but unlike citizens, they can’t vote or hold elective office.
The territory has a population of roughly 55,000 but it also affects the thousands of Samoans who reside on the mainland and Hawaii. There are about 61,000 American Samoans living in California and another 60,000 living in the other states.
Those born in the other U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Marianas — all get citizenship at birth, but that was determined by statute in Congress. No such statute exists for American Samoa.
The challengers said that the law violates the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last year that birthright citizenship does not automatically apply to the nation’s unincorporated political territories.
The government of American Samoa opposes birthright citizenship, arguing that unique Samoan cultural traditions “might be threatened by a fundamental change in the status of the American Samoan people.” The leaders believe that if full citizenship rights were given to their residents, they would lose autonomy over local laws, which includes a law that allows the land to be communally owned by Samoan families. About 90 percent of American Samoa falls under this status. The land cannot be sold or rented to anyone “whose blood is less than one-half Samoan.”
The territory’s leaders said that “whether birthright citizenship should extend to the people of American Samoa is a question for the people of American Samoa and its elected representatives, and not for this (Supreme) Court to decide.”
The lower court ruled that under the Insular cases distinction, birthright citizenship is not a “fundamental” right owed to the “unincorporated” territories. The Insular cases is a set of laws based on racist views of the early 20th century that didn’t think the Samoans were intellectually capable of ruling themselves.
The main plaintiff in the original suit is Leneuoti Tuaua, who says he was denied a job in a California law enforcement agency because he was not a citizen.
American Samoans can claim U.S. citizenship if one of their parents is a citizen or by residing in a U.S. state. After three months they can begin the naturalization process which takes five years.
The other option would be to have a U.S. Congressional representative champion their cause with legislation.