Court rules against granting American Samoans citizenship at birth

Si'u Point Trail, Ta'u Island, National Park of American Samoa. (Photo by the U.S. Department of the Interior, via Flickr.)
Si’u Point Trail, Ta’u Island, National Park of American Samoa. (Photo by the U.S. Department of the Interior, via Flickr.)

American Samoans still won’t be eligible for full U.S. citizenship at birth, an appeals court ruled Friday, leaving the island as the only place on U.S. soil where someone can be born without getting full U.S. citizenship rights.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia circuit ruled against plaintiff Leneuoti Fiafia Tuaua, who argued that people born on the U.S. territory should not have to apply for naturalization like immigrants from other countries do.

The original plaintiffs included Seattle resident Taffy Lei Maene, who lost her job at the Department of Licensing because she was a U.S. national and not a citizen.

American Samoa is the only U.S. territory where citizenship is not a birthright — people born in Guam and Puerto Rico, for example, are full U.S. citizens.

Both the U.S. government and the territorial government of American Samoa filed briefs against granting U.S. citizenship to the island’s residents, according to the article, arguing that that granting full U.S. citizenship rights to American Samoans threatened the territory’s government.

“Representatives of the American Samoan people have long expressed concern that the extension of United States citizenship to the territory could potentially undermine these aspects of the Samoan way of life,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in her ruling.

But critics of the ruling questioned the reasoning behind it, including writer Joshua Keating at Slate.

Keating says the judge relied on early 20th century rulings called the “Insular Cases” that drew a distinction between territories destined for statehood and other territories.

The justices at the time were fairly open about the dangers they saw in granting citizenship to ‘uncivilized races,’ ” Keating writes.

Mother Jones writer Pema Levy also takes a critical look at the Insular Cases.

American Samoa has been a U.S. territory since 1900, and chose to stay with the U.S. after being given the option for independence. People born there are considered U.S. nationals and not citizens, unless the person has a parent who is a U.S. citizen.

American Samoans must go through the same naturalization process as other immigrants and their U.S.-issued passports say, “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

The difference between national and citizen can be huge. Taffy Lei Maene told The Seattle Globalist in 2012 that she lost a job at the Department of Licensing after the state’s adoption of the enhanced licenses required staff to be citizens. Then, a subsequent employer questioned her legal status.

“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.

Read Tuaua, et al., vs. the United States of America and the America Samoa Government.