Imagine being born in a country where you can work, travel freely and even join the military, but you’re not considered a citizen.
That’s the situation facing 56,000 residents of American Samoa, the only one of 14 US territories that does not allow an easy path to citizenship for people who move to the mainland US.
If you flipped open to the back page of an American Samoan’s passport, you would see a stamp that says: “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”
But a new lawsuit with roots in the Pacific Northwest is looking to change that.
Earlier this month, a group of American Samoans living in the mainland US filed the suit to overturn federal laws and policies that prevent them from having the same rights as an American citizens. The lawyers for the case argue that the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly entitles American Samoans to have the same rights as an American citizen.
One of those lawyers is Bainbridge Island resident Charles Ala’ilima.
“[I took this case on because] it’s been 112 years since the United States took over these islands and that’s about long enough to decide what kind of people you are,” he said.
Other attorneys on the case come from the Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C. based think tank and law firm that seeks to uphold rights granted by the Constitution. Ala’ilima said they had contacted him regarding the case in order to find any American Samoans who had experienced some hardship due to their status as a non-citizen national.
He pointed out how, despite not having the same rights, many American Samoans serve in the U.S. military.
“[They] fight under that flag, [they] die under that flag. Per capita, American Samoa has…suffered the most from these wars because they have so many kids that join the military and that is American Samoa’s contribution to American culture,” he said.
American Samoa has been home to a U.S. naval base for over a century. And in a territory with 23 percent unemployment, many young people living there often find themselves with no better option than to enlist. Four of the six plaintiffs in the case also have extensive military service, but are still not considered citizens.
Six plaintiffs were brought in to join the case. One of them is Seattle resident Taffy Lei Maene. In February 2011, she worked for the state Department of Licensing where she issued licenses, identification cards and sat with people during their test drives.
“I loved my job,” she said.
Maene said she was hired on a probationary one-year period; after her one year was up, a final decision would be made whether to keep her on as a permanent employee. During her one year period, a new change in the department took place: the issuing of enhanced drivers’ licenses for state residents who wanted to visit Canada without needing a passport.
“In order to issue that license, you had to be a U.S. citizen yourself,” she said.
At the end of her probationary year in February 2012, her employer wanted to keep her on board, but she needed to provide proof of citizenship. She submitted her American Samoa birth certificate and her United States passport and red flags came up when they realized she was only considered a national and not a citizen.
“Two weeks later, they called me and said I had to be separated and don’t meet the requirements to work for the Department of Licensing,” she said.
In the three months that followed, she lived off $200 a week of unemployment as she looked for new work. She lost her health benefits and was stressed and fearful of being unable to pay rent and utility bills off her unemployment benefits.
Maene now works for the Department of Social and Health Services and her new job doesn’t require citizenship. They did, however, question her as to why she was let go from the DOL. When she explained her citizenship status, they then questioned her if she was a legal citizen.
Maene, along with others born in American Samoa, are not completely barred from citizenship. But unlike their counterparts from other U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, they are the only ones who must jump over bureaucratic hurdles as if they were an immigrant. This includes paying a $675 fee to take the citizenship test issued by the federal government, a cost that people from all other US territories can dodge.
“I should have the rights of a U.S. citizen,” Maene said. “Being able to go out there and not have an employer question my citizenship [and] explaining to people who I am – it doesn’t have to be that way.”
In 1900, the United States Navy took over the islands that would eventually become American Samoa, after a naval dispute over the islands with Germany.
“I think the racial undertones (in the early 20th century) were such that (the United States) didn’t really want to bring all these people and give them citizenship,” Ala’ilima said.
A bill that would grant citizenship rights to American Samoans was debated in 1929, but was eventually voted down by Congress. The island territory was given a chance to become independent but they chose to stay with the United States.
Ala’ilima hopes that the Department of Justice will overturn the policies without any further issues.
“It’s a simple lawsuit,” he said. “But if the federal government wants to defend this…we are prepared to respond.”
Among the other ironies, American Samoans’ status as a U.S. national also affects their entry into independent Samoa, which sits to the west of American Samoa. American citizens don’t pay an entry or exit tax and don’t need a visitor’s permit. American Samoans who have the “U.S. national” stamp in their passports, on the other hand, must pay that tax and apply for a visitor’s permit – to a country with which they share similar culture and roots.
“What an insult,” Ala’ilima said. “So the real question is, if we’re not U.S. citizens, what are we really citizens of?”