Appeals court: US citizenship should not be forced on American Samoans

Amata says ruling should set citizenship question to rest



Automatic U.S. citizenship should not be imposed on those born in American Samoa, a federal appeals court said in a ruling that cited the role of culture in the territory's way of life — locally known as “fa’a Samoa.”


“There is simply insufficient case law to conclude with certainty that citizenship will have no effect on the legal status of the fa’a Samoa,” the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal said in a ruling Tuesday.


“The constitutional issues that would arise in the context of America Samoa’s unique culture and social structure would be unusual, if not entirely novel, and therefore unpredictable.”


The appellate court also took into consideration the American Samoa government's own position.


"It is evident that the wishes of the territory’s democratically elected representatives, who remind us that their people have not formed a consensus in favor of American citizenship and urge us not to impose citizenship on an unwilling people from a courthouse thousands of miles away, have not been taken into adequate consideration," the ruling reads.


"Such consideration properly falls under the purview of Congress, a point on which we fully agree with the concurrence. These circumstances advise against the extension of birthright citizenship to American Samoa."


Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata of American Samoa welcomed the appellate court’s ruling as “truly a blessing and should set this issue to rest.”


She vowed to fight any more future attempts to challenge the American Samoans' cultural identity and nationality.


Under U.S. law, people born in American Samoa are American nationals but not American citizens.


"While the legal question remained murky, one aspect of the nation’s approach to American citizenship in the territories was always clear: it was not extended by operation of the Constitution," the ruling said.


The appellate court’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by three American Samoa-born Utah residents, who challenged their inability to vote in the state.

John Fitisemanu is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged the American Samoans' inability to vote in U.S. elections. Photo courtesy of Equally American

The 10th Circuit Court’s ruling overturned a Utah judge’s 2019 decision, which held that the three plaintiffs, led by John Fitisemanu, were entitled to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment.


American Samoa is the only unincorporated U.S. territory, where the inhabitants are American citizens at birth.


The American Samoa government fights to keep the status quo, arguing that automatic citizenship could disrupt cultural customs and traditions, such as communal land ownership and social structures organized around large, extended families led by matai, those with hereditary chieftain titles.


American Samoan leaders said those who want to switch citizenship may do so through an existing naturalization process.


Saying the appellate court’s ruling preserves family land and matai heritage, Amata called on the plaintiffs and "the special interests behind them in this case to end their assault on the right of the American Samoa people to determine for themselves whether or not to become U.S. citizens.”


At the same time, she urged Congress to act on her bill, H.R. 1941, which would facilitate a quick and affordable naturalization process for American Samoans who may choose to change their citizenship.


Amata said the challenge to the American Samoans' nationality status should have ended in 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court's decision on an identical lawsuit involving Leneuoti Tuaua.


In June 2015, the District of Columbia Circuit Court ruled that the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment was “ambiguous” as to whether birthright citizenship was guaranteed in overseas U.S. territories.


“I have been very frustrated by this process, which was already underway when I took office in 2015 in the Tuaua case. My predecessor, Faleomavaega, was an intervenor in that suit and I readily agreed to replace him when he left office,” Amata said.


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“It seemed so straightforward to me at the time that this issue was for the people to decide that I thought the Supreme Court disposition of the case would be the end of it. So, I was surprised when the special interests, who apparently are looking for a path to national voting rights for territorial residents, found yet another plaintiff and another court to hear the same complaint all over again,” Amata said, apparently referring to Equally American, a nonprofit group advocating for equal rights U.S. territories.


Amata suggested that Equally American take its complaint to the government of American Samoa instead of the courts.


“If special interests want Samoans in the states to have citizenship, then they should limit future legal action to Samoans in the states. Their efforts should not sweep up the people in the islands against their will,” she said.


“It is the height of irony that those claiming to right the wrongs of the past fail to see they are perpetuating them by seeking to override American Samoa’s precious self-determination from without,” Amata said.


In a dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Bacharach said those born in American Samoa are entitled to birthright citizenship.


"When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, courts, dictionaries, maps and censuses uniformly regarded territories as land 'in the United States,'” Bacharach wrote.


"Second, even if the territory of American Samoa lay outside the United States, the citizenship clause would apply because citizenship is a fundamental right," the dissenting judge said.


"Third, even if the right were not fundamental, applying the citizenship clause to the three American Samoan plaintiffs would not be impracticable or anomalous."