Appeal filed in landmark case arguing that the constitutional right of birthright citizenship extends throughout the territorial limits of the United States
Leneuoti Tuaua is a proud American, born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory since 1900. He is not recognized as a U.S. citizen, though, because a federal statute labels people born in American Samoa “nationals, but not citizens, of the United States.” In Tuaua v. United States, he and others born in American Samoa seek recognition that the path to citizenship guaranteed by the Constitution – birth within the United States – cannot be redefined by Congress to exclude people born in U.S. territories.
“Congress has overstepped its bounds by redefining what ‘born in . . . the United States’ means for purposes of the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship,” said Neil Weare, President of We the People Project and lead counsel in Tuaua. “So long as American Samoa is U.S. soil, the Constitution, not Congress, answers the question of citizenship.”
“My children were born on U.S. soil. They should have the same rights as other Americans and be recognized as citizens,” said Tuaua, a retired Court Marshall in American Samoa. “If we are Americans, then why not citizens?”
American Samoa has among the highest rate of military service of any American jurisdiction. Yet in order to be recognized as citizens, federal statutes require people born in American Samoa to first naturalize. For plaintiffs Va’a Fosi, who has lived in Hawaii for more than 25 years, and Taffy-lei Maene, who has lived in Washington State since 2006, this means that to be eligible to vote in state and federal elections they would first need to pay almost $700 in naturalization fees and pass an English language and civics exam.
“The naturalization requirement amounts to a poll tax and a literacy test for thousands of Americans born in American Samoa,” Weare said.
Loa Pele Faletogo is President of the Samoan Federation of America, a Los Angeles-based social services organization that is an organizational plaintiff in the case: “Many of our people swore an oath to defend the Constitution when they joined the military. Now they find themselves unable to vote in state and federal elections because they are labeled ‘non-citizen national.’ That’s not right.” Mr. Faletogo is himself a veteran, and eventually naturalized so he could vote. “If our people are not citizens of the United States, where are we citizens?” Faletogo added.
The Tuaua plaintiffs have U.S. passports, but their passports are imprinted with a disclaimer in capital letters: “THE BEARER IS A UNITED STATES NATIONAL AND NOT A UNITED STATES CITIZEN.” An image of this disclaimer is included below.
In June, the D.C. district court dismissed the Tuaua plaintiffs’ case. Setting aside the text and history of the Constitution, the district court instead focused its analysis on the Insular Cases. These controversial Supreme Court decisions from the early 1900s have been compared to Plessy v. Ferguson and criticized by First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella as establishing a “doctrine of separate and unequal” status for territorial residents. While acknowledging “none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause,” the district court nonetheless interpreted them broadly to conclude that “citizenship is not guaranteed to people born in unincorporated territories.” Decisions by the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit have embraced a much narrower interpretation of the Insular Cases.
“On appeal, the D.C. Circuit will have the opportunity to follow the words of the Constitution and recent guidance by the Supreme Court. It is time to turn the page on the Insular Cases. Like Plessy v. Ferguson, these decisions are products of another era that belong in the dustbin of history,” Weare said.