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American Samoa bucks US citizenship, backs Insular Cases

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

U.S. citizenship cannot be "imposed" on American Samoans, the territorial government argued, opposing a petition for the reversal of an appeals court’s ruling which held that the Citizenship Clause does not automatically extend to people born in the U.S. territories.

In a brief filed today in the U.S. Supreme Court, the American Samoan government stated that imposing citizenship runs counter to the “wishes” of American Samoans, who seek self-determination.

The brief was submitted in response to a petition filed by John Fitisemanu and the two other plaintiffs, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli, who were all born in American Samoa, and are currently residing in Utah where they have been denied the right to vote because they are not considered U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday asked the Supreme Court to reject the Fitisemanu case on citizenship rights for American Samoa, noting that the territory's elected leaders themselves do not want to disrupt the status quo.

Under federal law, persons born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals, not U.S. citizens. As U.S. nationals, they owe allegiance to the United States, may enter the United States freely, may apply for U.S. citizenship without first becoming a permanent resident, and may serve (as many American Samoans have) in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The petitioners have asked the Supreme Court to overrule the 10th District Court of Appeal's decision to deny their plea for citizenship status.

“Petitioners now seek to disrupt that unique status, asking this court to hold that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires imposing birthright citizenship on the American Samoan people regardless of their wishes,” the American Samoan government said. “That position contravenes not only constitutional text, structure, and history, but more than a century of unbroken historical practice.”

The American Samoan government pointed out that "nothing prevents petitioners from seeking citizenship for themselves through the streamlined naturalization process that Congress has provided for persons born in American Samoa. "


The American Samoan government also opposed the petitioners’ plea for the Supreme Court to strike down the Insular Cases, a series of century-old decisions that have been the basis of congressional actions to exclude U.S. territories from certain federal programs available to all states.

“It would be the height of irony to use the overruling of the Insular Cases to cut off that ongoing democratic dialogue, deprive the American Samoan people of their fundamental right to self-determination, and force them to accept birthright citizenship regardless of their wishes,” the American Samoan government said.

The territory’s elected leaders said they have no desire to disrupt the status quo.

“There is nothing American Samoa treasures more than fa’a Samoa—the Samoan way of life, drawing on traditions that trace their roots back for thousands of years,” the court filing stated.

“Petitioners’ attempt to force birthright citizenship on all American Samoans threatens numerous aspects of fa’a Samoa, risking serious disruption to the political and social structures that have allowed this unique culture to survive.”

While other U.S. territories slam the Insular Cases, the American Samoan government said the court's decision on Fitesamanu case works in its favor.

"The Insular Cases are often criticized for relying on ‘beliefs both odious and wrong’ to deprive the inhabitants of overseas territories of their rights, including their basic right to self-determination," the brief stated.

The American Samoan government, however, said the appeals court's decision on the citizenship case, "does precisely the opposite: It respects the wishes of the American Samoan people, as expressed by the unanimous voice of their democratic government and elected representatives, by allowing the American Samoan people to decide for themselves."


American Samoan Attorney Charles V. Ala’ilima, who serves as co-counsel for the petitioners, frowned on the American Samoan government's brief.

“Our elected officials today continue to ignore that the traditional leaders who ceded sovereignty of our lands to the United States did so on the understanding that they would be recognized U.S. citizens as a result," Ala’ilima said. "In fact, after the federal government imposed the second-class status of non-citizen national in the 1920s, for decades our leaders fought for American Samoans to be recognized as full U.S. citizens."

Ala’ilima said he was baffled by the notion that American Samoa is "not in the United States."

"Not only is ‘American’ in the name itself, but American Samoans have the highest military enlistment and casualty rates of any U.S. jurisdiction,” Ala’ilima added. “To argue that American Samoa is not ‘subject to the jurisdiction of the United States even as our Constitutional Convention attempts to limit the unilateral authority of Congress and the Secretary of the Interior over our people is simply unbelievable." Incumbent and former elected officials from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have filed briefs supporting birthright citizenship for those born in U.S. territories.

"The view that recognition of a right to citizenship is compatible with protecting self-determination and cultural preservation is emphasized in the brief filed by elected officials from other territories who 'demonstrate through their own experiences how U.S. citizenship is fully compatible with the territories’ right to self-determination, their local legal traditions, and the preservation of their vibrant cultural heritage," Ala’ilima said.

Filing a brief in support of Fitisemanu petitioners, Michelle Mataese, president of the Los Angeles-based Samoan Federation of America, said, “The discriminatory denial of citizenship to people born in American Samoa makes it harder for our community’s voice to be heard politically, and harder for our people to succeed economically."

Mataese said American Samoa's traditional leaders who signed the Deed of Cession of Tutuila acknowledged that "the transfer of sovereignty over our lands to the United States" granted American Samoans a right to be recognized as U.S. citizens."

She added that "citizenship presents no threat to our culture or self-determination."

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