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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

American Samoans are US citizens, federal court rules

John Fitesamenu

John Fitesemanu

American Samoans are U.S. citizens at birth, a federal judge in Utah ruled, striking down a State Department policy that excludes them from the Fourteenth Amendment.

“American Samoans owe permanent allegiance to the United States. They are therefore subject to jurisdiction of the Unites States,” U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups wrote in a decision released Thursday. “

Waddoups ordered the U.S. government to issue American Samoans passports that reflect their birthright citizenship. Any federal policy that exempts American Samoans from the application of the Fourteenth Amendment is unconstitutional, the judge said.

American Samoa, which has been a U.S. territory since 1900, has a population of 55,641 and has one nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress.

"American Samoa is a territory that is within the dominion of the United States," Waddoups wrote. "Its therefore 'in the United States.'"

Clark Waddoups

The ruling was based on a 2018 lawsuit filed by Utah residents John Fitesamanu, Pale Tul and Rosavitra Tuli, who challenged their status as "non-citizen nationals,” which they argued barred them from voting, as well as certain employment opportunities.

“I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, work hard, and pay my taxes. But based on a discriminatory federal law I’m denied citizenship and the right to vote. I cannot understand how I can be a passport-holding American, but not be recognized as a U.S. citizen,” Fitisemanu said in statement after filing the lawsuit last year.

Federal Judge Clark Waddoups

Fitisemanu’s U.S. passport included a disclaimer stating in capital letters that “The bearer us a United States national and not a United States citizen."

Pale and Rosavita Tuli, who reside in Kearns, Utah and have faced barriers to employment opportunities and other challenges because they are not recognized as U.S. citizens.

American Samoa Congresswoman Aumua Amata said she was disappointed by the court's ruling.

She issued the following statement.

"It will certainly come as a surprise to tens of thousands of American Samoans that a federal judge in Utah has ruled that they are now United States citizens. Because the residents of American Samoa have vibrant democratic processes and already had a path to citizenship that I had worked to make even more accessible, the ruling is particularly unwelcome and inappropriate.

"The Utah federal judge’s ruling is literally without precedent. It reaches the opposite conclusion from that of distinguished judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Unfortunately, the ruling did not address the concerns we had raised about the rights of the American Samoan people to decide their own status, both as individuals and as a people.

“I have faith that God has the best for our Samoan people in mind and will work all things together for good. While there is room for American Samoans to have different opinions about whether to seek United States citizenship, there are deep concerns about having a distant federal judge decide these issues.

"The people of American Samoa have the most ancient culture in the islands of the Pacific, and it is integrally connected to the unique indigenous practices embodied in the Fa’a Samoa, our Samoan way of life, its land tenure and matai systems, that have been handed down proudly through the generations.

"We are committed to the preservation of Fa’a Samoa, and we intend to appeal this ruling, even as we work to make sure that a path to individual citizenship is available and accessible to all American Samoans who choose to pursue it. I will keep our people apprised in every way I can, and continue to be guided by the wishes of those I directly represent in the islands in working with Governor Lolo Moliga and Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale.”


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