Supreme Court Refuses American Samoan Citizenship Case, Lower Court Ruling That American Samoans Are Not Citizens Will Stand

The Supreme Court refused Monday to hear a case that could have potentially granted automatic birthright citizenship to tens of thousands of people from the United States overseas territory of American Samoa. The refusal means that the ruling of a lower court will stand, and residents of American Samoa will not receive the same birthright citizenship as those born elsewhere in the United States.

In the case that the Supreme Court refused to hear, five people born in American Samoa claimed that everyone born in the U.S. overseas territory should have citizenship according to a part of the 14th Amendment that defines citizens as anyone who was born or naturalized in the United States.

“All persons born or naturalized in the States States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

NBC News reports that two of the people involved in the suit, Fanuatanu Mamea and Emy Afalava, served in the United States armed forces. Mamea is a Vietnam veteran and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, and Afalava served in the first Gulf War.

American Samoa has been a territory of the United States since 1900, but American Samoans like Mamea and Afalava are considered to be “non-citizen nationals” instead of citizens. That essentially means that they are barred from voting in U.S. elections or running for public office, and while many American Samoans serve in the U.S. armed forces, they can not become officers.

american samoa no citizenship
American Samoa has been a U.S. territory for more than 100 years, but people born there are not citizens. [Photo via Shutterstock]
Unlike those born in American Samoa, people born in every other unincorporated U.S. territory, including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas, are all citizens rather than non-citizen nationals.

The difference between American Samoa and a territory like Puerto Rico is that congress granted birthright citizenship to those territories by statute. No such statute exists for American Samoa, so the case that the Supreme Court refused to hear relied primarily on the idea that American Samoa is part of the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”

According to NBC News, the case was strongly opposed by the Obama administration and the local government of American Samoa.

In a brief filed by the American Samoa government, the primary reason given for maintaining the status quo was to protect Samoan culture. According to the brief, concepts such as communal land ownership and tight-knit extended family units called ‘aiga could be threatened by U.S. citizenship.

CNN reports that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia based its decision to deny citizenship primarily on the controversial Insular Cases, which were a series of decisions made around 1900 in order to distinguish between territories destined for statehood and those that would remain territories.

While people born in territories that were destined for statehood received citizenship at birth, people born in other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam only received citizenship through acts of congress.

“Citizenship is not the sum of its benefits. It is no less than the adoption or ascription of an identity, that of citizen, to a particular sovereign state, and a ratification of those mores necessary and intrinsic to association as a full functioning component of that sovereignty,” D.C. Circuit Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote. “At base appellants ask that we forcibly impose a compact of citizenship, on a distinct and unincorporated territory of people, in the absence of evidence that a majority of the territory’s inhabitants endorse such a tie and where the territory’s democratically elected representatives actively oppose such a compact.”

Since the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the decision of the lower court will stand, and people born in American Samoa will continue to be non-citizen nationals rather than full citizens.

Do you think that congress should step in and allow American Samoans the same right to citizenship as people born in other U.S. territories, or should they remain non-citizen nationals?

[Image via Shutterstock]

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