Before the early 1900s, all U.S. citizens were considered U.S. nationals, and all U.S. nationals were considered U.S. citizens. The only lines that were ever drawn were between U.S. citizens/nationals on the one hand, and “aliens” (i.e., foreign nationals) on the other.
Around 1900, as the federal government began to acquire many overseas territories, the status of “non-citizen national” was invented out of political convenience. It was used to justify the government’s efforts to exercise power over the inhabitants of these new territories without having to give them the rights and privileges associated with citizenship.
Over time, Congress has eliminated the status of “non-citizen national” in every U.S. territory except American Samoa. Congress recognized citizenship in Puerto Rico in 1917, the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1927, Guam in 1950, and the Northern Mariana Islands in 1986.
If this lawsuit is successful, citizenship and nationality would once again be treated as interchangeable and undividable, and the status of “non-citizen national” would be relegated to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. The individual rights and privileges of people born in American Samoa should not be subject to the kind of political manipulation that the second-class status of “non-citizen national” allows.