Bill offers an option for American Samoans who wish to switch citizenship
Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata, American Samoa's representative to Congress, has introduced a bill that would facilitate a simplified citizenship-change process for any American Samoan who wishes to convert to U.S. citizenship.
Amata is proposing that certain stringent requirements for naturalization be waived. The bill lists continuous physical residency in any U.S. jurisdiction as the only requirement for eligibility.
H.R. 1941 seeks to redress American Samoans' obscure status — they are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens — and offers an option for those who wish to become full-fledged American citizens without imposing on the territory's general population.
American Samoans are divided over the citizenship issue. While many prefer that the territory keep the status quo, others advocate for U.S. citizenship.
American Samoa Gov. Lemanu P.S. Mauga endorses H.R.1941, which he said would expedite reclassification of "national" to "citizen" to anyone who chooses it.
"I am pleased that many of the territorial members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already cosponsored our congresswoman's bill," Mauga said a letter to fellow governors of sister territories.
Amata's bill is co-sponsored by the members of the House from the four other U.S. island territories: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I greatly appreciate the support of my colleagues,” said Amata, who wrote each of them recently to ask them to underscore the importance of self-determination in any federal action that involves political status or political relationship with the U.S.
American Samoa became a U.S. territory by deed of cession. The local chiefs of Tutuila, the largest island in American Samoa, ceded the island to the United States in 1900. Manu'a followed in 1904. Swain Island joined the territory in 1925 by an act of Congress.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service does not have jurisdiction over American Samoa, which controls its own borders.
"Our forebears negotiated an agreement with the United States that protects our lands and customs that we have found satisfactory to date and which we wish to continue until such time as the people who live here feel differently," Mauga said.
The U.S. government exercises sovereignty over all of its territories, which enjoy certain perks of flying the American flag, but at the same, are excluded from the application of certain constitutional provisions.
“We all carry U.S. passports, we all can move freely about the U.S. without restrictions, our school systems are modeled after those in the states, we can reside anywhere we choose in the U.S., and we all enjoy self-government based on the U.S. model of separation of powers among the three branches," she said.
At the same time, however, none of the territorial delegates has voting representation in Congress and are unable to vote for president because the U.S. Constitution does not provide for territorial membership in the electoral college.
But while all territories have much in common, there are some substantial, fundamental differences that set American Samoa apart from the rest, Amata said.
“Unlike the other four, the U.S. did not acquire sovereignty over American Samoa as a result of military conquest or sale by a European or Asian metropolitan country," Amata said.
Unlike the other territories, American Samoa controls its own borders and customs service independent of the federal judicial system.
"While we all are Americans, most American Samoans are U.S. nationals, an option not available to residents of any other state or territory," Amata said.
Equally American, a U.S.-based civil rights group, is advocating for American Samoa's citizenship rights. It is working with the LA-based Samoan Federation of America and the Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition to help American Samoans living throughout the 50 states enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other Americans without having to go through the naturalization process.
But whether this is the desire of the majority of American Samoans is another story.
Amata cited Mauga's recent letters to his gubernatorial colleagues in the territories, advising them that "the majority of our people prefer to maintain our status as nationals and ask that you not support any efforts to impose citizenship on us by court fiat.”
Mauga was not pleased with a federal court's December 2019 decision, which ruled in favor of three residents of American Samoa who challenged their status. The court concluded they were citizens under the 14th Amendment adopted after the Civil War.
The Utah court ruling is currently pending review by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Both the U.S. and American Samoa governments have appealed the decision.
"If the 10th Circuit were to uphold the Utah District Court, it would set a precedent that would be dangerous to all the territories by diminishing the power of Congress - where we all are represented- to determine the status of territories as provided by the U.S. Constitution," Mauga said in a March 19 letter to territorial governors.
"Congress in the past has statutorily considered and passed legislation to grant citizenship to the other territories with input from those territories and has sought the views and consent of the people residing there, but that would not be the case here," the governor said.
Amata said American Samoa leaders believe that any change in political status, including revision of citizenship, should come about as an Act of Congress.
"It is only through the political processes that the people of American Samoa can have a role in deliberating and deciding important issues relating to their status, on the timeframe they choose, in accordance with what matters most to them," Amata said.
If H.R. 1941 is signed into law, U.S. nationals at their option would be able to convert to citizenship and, if living in the states or District of Columbia, be able to vote in presidential elections and hold certain federal jobs that require citizenship to obtain security clearances.
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