Citizenship FAQ: Myths and Realities

Answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the myths and realities behind issues of citizenship for people born in American Samoa.

Read more about the history of American Samoa, citizenship, and land and culture in Judge Waddoups' landmark ruling in Fitisemanu v. United States (pages 25-31), as well as an important amicus brief filed by the Samoan Federation of America (including this 500 page appendix of historical resources).

American Samoa Attorney Charles Ala'ilima, co-counsel in Fitisemanu v. United States, also explained these issues in a Op-Ed published on Flag Day in Samoa News.

Do you have more questions?  Please contact us!

Why are people born in American Samoa not recognized as U.S. citizens?


When American Samoa's traditional leaders signed the Deeds of Cession in 1900 and 1904 transferring sovereignty to the United States, they believed that in return they would be recognized as U.S. citizens.


However, without any basis in the law, and contrary to the desires of American Samoa's leaders, officials at the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Navy refused to recognize American Samoans as citizens, labeling them instead with the inferior status of "non-citizen U.S. national." The U.S. Navy was motivated in large part due to racial stereotypes, believing American Samoans were "not ready" to be recognized as citizens. In 1940, Congress passed a discriminatory law that for the first time formally denied American Samoans recognition as U.S. citizens. 


Today, U.S. citizenship is recognized for children born in American Samoa to parents who are U.S. citizens. However, all other children born in American Samoa continue to be labeled as "non-citizen U.S. nationals."

What are the consequences of American Samoans being denied recognition as citizens?


Based on a discriminatory federal law, people born in American Samoa are labeled with the inferior status "non-citizen U.S. national" rather than recognized as citizens as required by the U.S. Constitution.  The affects of the distinction between citizen and non-citizen national are most strongly felt by American Samoans who have moved stateside for educational and economic opportunities. 


"Non-citizen U.S. nationals" living in the states are unable to vote in federal, state, and local elections unless they first naturalize - which costs $725, requires they pass a history exam, and is a process that can take a year or more.  This is like a poll tax and literacy test all rolled into one.


"Non-citizen U.S. nationals" are also denied many job opportunities, including being barred from serving as officers in the U.S. military.  Many states require citizenship to serve as police officers, firefighters, and other good-paying state or local jobs.


Many state laws actually treat "non-citizen U.S. nationals" worse off than they treat foreign nationals with legal permanent residence, providing more rights and opportunities to these foreign nationals than American Samoans enjoy as U.S. nationals. 


Federal law and the laws of each state treat non-citizen nationals different under different circumstances.  For more information on the consequences of this confusing patchwork of laws, read this amicus brief filed by the Hon. Papalii David Cohen, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior for Insular Affairs, in support of recognizing people born in American Samoa as U.S. citizens.

I’ve heard that the traditional leaders of American Samoa have always been against U.S. citizenship. Is that correct?


No.  On April 17, 1900, when the American flag was raised over Pago Pago harbor, American Samoa’s traditional leaders believed they had become American citizens.  And throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, American Samoa’s traditional leaders repeatedly petitioned Congress for full U.S. citizenship.  Indeed, had it not been for opposition from the U.S. Navy at the time, it is likely that the issue of citizenship would have been resolved long ago.  During the 1930s, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously on two separate occasions to recognize American Samoans as citizens while continuing to preserve American Samoa’s land and title systems, only to see the legislation fail in the House due to racially motivated opposition from the U.S. Navy. Local support for recognition of citizenship in American Samoa continued at least through 1960.


For more historical context, see this amicus brief filed by the Samoan Federation of America, along with this appendix with nearly 500 pages of historical materials.


The following testimony was provided by American Samoan leaders during a 1930 Hearing in American Samoa:


  •  “I will vindicate the rights of my own people if I can do anything . . . I appeal to the commission to give those people what they want.  Give them American citizenship.  Give them the privilege of other people of the United States.” -- Napolean Tuiteleleapaga, author of music for “Amerika Samoa”
  • “[E]very person in American Samoa . . . earnestly requests to the honorable commission to make necessary recommendations to Congress to have the people of Samoa to be a true American Citizen.” -- Tui Manu’a Chris T. Young
  • “I desire . . . that the people of American Samoa should be true American citizens; receive American citizenship, to be equal with the true American.” -- Chief Nua
  • “My full desire that I wish to present before the commission [is] that the people of Samoa should obtain true American citizenship.” -- Chief Matoa
  • “[M]any years we have been under the American flag. . . . But we have not received the word ‘true American.’  We are not taken yet as citizens of America; but this morning I pray the commissioners that they will do what they can that we may be made citizens of the United States to serve the United States.  We are only a few people that is true, but we wish to become loyal and peaceful citizens of the United States.” --  Chief Fanene
  • “[T]he soil of Tutuila and Manua has been made a part of America but the people of Tutuila and Manua are not American Citizens, that as Tutuila and Manua has been accepted as part of America, I therefore pray that the people of Tutuila and Manua may also become citizens of America.”  -- Samuel Tulele Galeai

Additional excerpts of historical materials relating to citizenship in American Samoa (1900-1948) are available here.  Primary resources are available here.  American Samoan Attorney Charles Ala'ilima has written more extensively about this history here.

The Samoan Federation of America explains more about the history of support for citizenship in American Samoa here, with an extensive appendix of primary resources available here.


What is the relationship between citizenship and issues relating to land and culture in American Samoa?


The legal argument that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from denying the birthright citizenship of people born in American Samoa is separate and distinct from legal issues relating to the constitutionality of American Samoa’s communal land and title systems.


In a 1980 decision, Craddick v. Territorial Registrar, federal judges sitting by designation on the High Court of American Samoa held that American Samoa’s land laws survived constitutional scrutiny based on “a compelling state interest in preserving the lands of American Samoa for Samoans and in preserving the Fa’a Samoa, or Samoan culture.” 1 Am Samoa 2d 11, 12 (1980), available here.  Nowhere in the Court’s analysis did the issue of citizenship or non-citizen national status come into consideration. 


Federal courts have upheld similar laws in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, where people are recognized as U.S. citizens at birth.


To the extent there are any unresolved questions about the constitutionality of land ownership restrictions in U.S. territories, these questions are separate from whether people born in America Samoa are recognized as citizens.  

I’ve heard that constitutional provisions like the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause don’t apply in American Samoa, and that is what allows for American Samoa’s land laws. Is that true?


No. The High Court of American Samoa has long recognized that “the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection are fundamental rights which do apply in the Territory of American Samoa.” 1 Am Samoa 2d 11, 12 (1980), available here. Nonetheless, in Craddick v. Territorial Registrar, the High Court held that American Samoa’s communal land laws did not violate these constitutional protections, because of the “compelling historical and continuing interest in preserving the land and culture of the Samoan people.” Id. at 14. It's conclusion had nothing to do with whether American Samoans are recognized as citizens or non-citizen nationals.

What is the relationship between citizenship and American Samoa’s future political status?

And should the issue of citizenship be put up for a vote?


The question of citizenship is straightforward: So long as American Samoa is part of the United States, do people born in American Samoa have an individual right under the U.S. Constitution to be recognized as citizens?  The Constitution’s Citizenship Clause provides a clear and definitive answer to this question, and one that is not subject to a vote:  “All persons born . . . in the United States, . . . are citizens of the United States.”  But answering the question of citizenship under the U.S. flag will not answer any questions about American Samoa’s future political status -- those are questions that only the people of American Samoa can answer.           


A court ruling that Congress cannot deny the birthright citizenship of people born in American Samoa will not change the fact that the future of American Samoa’s political status remains in the hands of the American Samoan people.  The islands of American Samoa have been a part of the United States since American Samoa’s traditional leaders transferred sovereignty through the Deeds of Cession more than a century ago.  Unless and until the American Samoan people decide to change their political status, the question of citizenship is determined by the U.S. Constitution.


Congressional testimony by American Samoan Attorney Charles V. Alai’ilima and Equally American's President Neil Weare that examines these issues further is available here.

Why not address the issue of citizenship through Congress rather than through the courts?


The purpose of the Citizenship Clause was to remove questions about birthright citizenship from the political process.  That way, the Constitution would answer those questions once and for all, instead of letting the issue be subject to legislation by Congress, the states, or the territories.  Of course, Congress can recognize American Samoans as U.S. citizens by statute, just as it has done for people born in every other U.S. territory.  But individual rights like birthright citizenship, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are guaranteed by the Constitution regardless what Congress does.  Until courts recognize that citizenship in U.S. territories is based on the Constitution, the individual rights and privileges of people born in U.S. territories will continue to be subject to potential political interference.  

What did the Framers of the Citizenship Clause say about citizenship in U.S. territories?


Senator Lyman Trumbull, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the time the Citizenship Clause was being debated in Congress, explained that “the first section [of the Fourteenth Amendment] refers to persons everywhere, whether in the States or in the Territories or in the District of Columbia.”  During debates over a similar citizenship provision in the 1866 Civil Rights Act, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James F. Wilson expressed the understanding that “Every person born within the United States, its Territories, or districts . . . is a natural-born citizen in the sense of the Constitution, and entitled to all the rights and privileges appertaining to that capacity.”

What has the Supreme Court said in cases dealing with the Citizenship Clause?


Four years after the 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court confirmed in the Slaughterhouse Cases that the Citizenship Clause “put[] to rest” the notion that “[t]hose . . . who had been born and resided always in the District of Columbia or in the Territories, though within the United States, were not citizens.”  Later, in 1898, two years before the first Deeds of Session for American Samoa were signed, the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Wong Kim Ark that the Citizenship Clause “affirms the ancient and fundamental rule of citizenship by birth within the territory, in the allegiance and under the protection of the country.” 

What has the Supreme Court said recently about the Insular Cases and U.S. territories?


In 2008, the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush explained that “[i]t may well be that over time the ties between the United States and any of its unincorporated Territories strengthen in ways that are of constitutional significance.”  The Court then cited approvingly to Justice William Brennan’s view in an earlier case that directly rejected relying on the Insular Cases to deny constitutional rights in U.S. territories today.


The Supreme Court went on to explain in Boumediene that “[t]he Constitution grants Congress and the President the power to acquire, dispose of, and govern territory, not the power to decide when and where its terms apply.”  The Court expressly rejected the idea that “the political branches have the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will.”  It explained that “[t]he test for determining the scope of [a constitutional] provision must not be subject to manipulation by those whose power it is designed to restrain.” 

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