Think there is a right to citizenship in U.S. territories? If a D.C. District Court is right, the Constitution’s guarantee of citizenship to people “born . . . in the United States” does not apply to U.S. territories.
Yesterday, as the Senate passed legislation to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, Leneuoti Tuaua and four other plaintiffs in the federal case of Tuaua v. United States were still processing the district court’s decision to uphold federal statutes that deny them citizenship even as they are recognized as Americans who owe allegiance to the United States. People born in American Samoa are the only U.S. nationals who are not also recognized as U.S. citizens under federal law.
In a decision issued late Wednesday, a D.C. District Court relied on the Insular Cases to conclude that “citizenship is not guaranteed to people born in unincorporated territories.” While recognizing that “none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause,” the court nonetheless relied on dicta in these Plessy-era decisions to reject the idea that “citizenship is a fundamental right” for people born in U.S. territories. In explaining its decision, the court cited a single Justice's infamous dicta from the 1901 case Downes v. Bidwell that the government was justified in denying citizenship to the inhabitants of overseas territories because of how “foreign they may be to our habits, traditions, and modes of life.”
But as the Supreme Court recognized in 2008 in Boumediene v. Bush, a lot has changed over the last 115 years, recognizing that “[i]t may well be that over time the ties between the United States and any of its unincorporated Territories strengthen in ways of constitutional significance.” The Supreme Court went on to cite a prior observation that “[w]hatever the validity of the [Insular Cases] in the particular historical context in which they were decided, those cases are clearly not authority for questioning the application [of the bill of rights in current U.S. territories.]”
The District Court’s decision was a missed opportunity to turn the page the page on the Insular Cases and what First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella has characterized as their doctrine of “separate and unequal” status for U.S. territories.
On appeal, Tuaua will present an opportunity for the D.C. Circuit to review whether dicta from the Insular Cases should be placed above the clear text and meaning of the Citizenship Clause. The Insular Cases have no place in the 21st century – like Plessy v. Ferguson, they should be left in the dustbin of history.
The District Court's decision in Tuaua v. United States is available here.
For more information about Tuaua v. United States, visit www.equalrightsnow.org/tuaua.