Time to Give American Samoans US Citizenship

  • Post category:Opinion

The Last American Outcasts Sue For Inclusion

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The US owns five territories: Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The first four receive US citizenship, but American Samoa does not; people born there receive a second-class status known as being a US national. Anchor babies get more rights than Samoans do. Samoans can’t vote in US elections, they can’t run for office and they can’t serve on juries. They are prohibited from holding jobs that require US citizenship, and cannot apply to sponsor their relatives for immigration visas. But they pay US taxes. American Samoa is separate from the independent nation of Samoa.

Three American Samoans who live in Utah filed a lawsuit last year against the US State Department challenging their second-class status. A federal district court judge in Utah just ruled in their favor. US District Judge Clark Waddoups, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, issued a 69-page opinion where he said, “Any State Department policy that provides that the citizenship provisions of the Constitution do not apply to persons born in American Samoa violates the 14th Amendment.” The 14th Amendment states that all people born in the US “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” are citizens. It was ratified in 1868 to extend citizenship to blacks after the abolition of slavery.

Under Waddoups’ decision, American Samoans that live in Utah will be able to vote. They will be able to become citizens without going through the long, arduous and expensive naturalization process that foreigners are required to go through, with no guarantee of success. However, Waddoups stayed his decision until it is resolved on appeal. Since there have been split decisions among the courts on this issue, it will likely end up in front of the Supreme Court. 

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is running for president, is currently the most well-known American Samoan. She is a US citizen, however, because her parents are. 

Some Historical Context

The Trump administration should not appeal the decision. It is unfair that this territory has been treated differently. Why should anchor babies get more rights than Samoans? They can be distinguished. Anchor babies are the product of their parents breaking the law and entering the country illegally. Samoans did not break the law. They have been part of a US territory since 1900. Charles Alailima, an American Samoan attorney, observed, “Everyone who was born [in American Samoa] after 1900 was born under the US flag owing allegiance to the United States.” The three plaintiffs say national status has been a “badge of inferiority” that perpetuated an American “caste system.”

The government has taken the position that it’s up to Congress to fix the problem, since Congress provided for birthright citizenship by statute for the other four territories. But if the national status is unconstitutional, then the courts should decide. 

Samoans aren’t locked into the Democratic Party. Like the other four territories, American Samoa elects a representative to serve in Congress, with limited voting privileges. Amata Coleman Radewagen, a Republican from Pago Pago, currently represents the territory. 

The territory has the highest military enlistment rate of any US state or territory. Shouldn’t these patriots receive citizenship? It’s ironic that they can serve in the US military but not as police officers due to the latter’s requirement of citizenship.

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The RNC Position

The Republican National Committee supports equal treatment of the citizens in the territories with citizens in the 50 states. The RNC noted in a recent resolution that American Samoa has not yet petitioned collectively as a people for birthright citizenship. The RNC compares the unequal treatment to the horrible decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation under the concept “separate but equal.” 

We’re not talking a large number of people becoming citizens. American Samoa has around 55,000 people, and over 180,000 American Samoans live in the US.

The Devil In The Details

Complicating the problem is that the American Samoan government is not supportive of the citizenship effort. This is in part due to the fact that it has customs that could be struck down as discriminatory under the 14th Amendment. The transfer of land to non-Samoans is prohibited, for example. But it sounds like they are not representing the wishes of the people. Congress could fix this, but it looks like the courts are already on their way.    

Rachel Alexander
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