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Supreme Court skips over American Samoa's citizenship case

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

By Pacific Island Times News Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to take up American Samoa's birthright citizenship case, allowing an appellate court's decision to stand.

“It’s a punch in the gut for the justices to leave in place a ruling that says I am not equal to other Americans simply because I was born in a U.S. territory. I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay my taxes like everyone else," said John Fitisemanu, lead plaintiff in Fitisemanu v. United States, who now lives in Utah.

In a June 2021 ruling, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that automatic U.S. citizenship should not be imposed on those born in American Samoa, citing 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 appeals court said.


"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.

In their appeal, Fitisemanu and his fellow plaintiffs who live in Utah have asked the Supreme Court to overrule the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court opinions in 1901 that upheld the status of U.S. territories as second-class citizens.

"But because of a discriminatory federal law, I am not recognized as a U.S. citizen. As a result, I can’t even vote in local elections, much less for President. This is un-American and cannot be squared with America’s democratic and constitutional principles,” Fitisemanu said.

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American Samoa is the only unincorporated territory, whose residents are not U.S. citizens. They are “U.S. nationals."

Rep. Uifa’atali Amata, American Samoa's delegate to the U.S. Congress welcomed the Supreme Court's refusal to consider the Fitisemanu case, saying its "helps preserve American Samoa’s cultural priorities and right of self-determination."

“This result is of utmost importance to preserving the American Samoa we know with the continuation of family land and our matai heritage, which our ancestors very clearly did not intend to let go in their actions of 1900 and 1904," Amata said. "Our people value American Samoa’s right of self-determination, with great love for the United States as expressed in our people’s high rate of service to the country."


Amata said issues related to the Insular Cases can be addressed by Congress. She urged her colleagues to pass her bill, H.R. 1941, which would facilitate citizenship change for American Samoans living in the states, who choose to become U.S. citizens.

"Under my sensible and concise bill, a U.S. national can quickly and affordably become a citizen as an individual, without forcing a group change on the islands," Amata said.

Neil Weare, president of Equally American and co-counsel in Fitisemanu v. United States, said the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the Insular Cases "continues to reflect that ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ does not mean the same thing for the 3.6 million residents of U.S. territories as it does for everyone else.'

He added that in recent years, the Supreme Court "has not hesitated to rule in ways that harm residents of U.S. territories. But when asked to stand up for the rights of people in the territories - even the basic right to citizenship - the justices are silent.”

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