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 the article "Citizenship in Empire: The Legal History of U.S. Citizenship in American Samoa" written by Professor Ross Dardani.

Prominent American Samoa Attorney Charles Ala'ilima, co-counsel in Fitisemanu v. United States, also explained these issues further in testimony he recently submitted to Congress.

The Samoan Federation of America also examined these issues in depth in a brief filed in support of the Fitisemanu plaintiffs that included a nearly 500-page appendix of historical materials (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

Do you have more questions?  Please contact us!


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

A:

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." In defense of this denial of citizenship, the U.S. Department of Justice - joined by elected officials in American Samoa - relies almost exclusively on the Insular Cases.

 

For more background, see Citizenship in Empire: The Legal History of U.S. Citizenship in American Samoa, 1899-1960.

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

A:

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 effects 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, but all American Samoans are impacted. 

 

"Non-citizen U.S. nationals" living in the states are unable to vote in federal, state, and local elections unless they first naturalize - which is only available to American Samoans who move stateside, costs $725, requires they pass a history exam, and is a process that can take a year or more without any guarantee of success.  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 differently 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.

 

Leneuoti Tuaua, a well-respected elder of the community in American Samoa, filed suit because he wants his children and grandchildren to have opportunities that were denied to him—as a young man he was unable to pursue a law enforcement career in California because the federal government does not recognize him as a citizen.

 

John Fitisemanu has now lived in Utah for more than 20 years, yet despite being a passport-holding, taxpaying American who served a critical role distributing COVID-19 tests, he has not been able to vote for members of his children’s school board, much less the President, because he is not recognized as a citizen.

 

Taffy-Lei Maene lost her job at the Seattle DMV because her U.S. passport says she is not a citizen. Va’a Fosi in Hawaii has been denied the right to bear arms despite ten years of service as an officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. These are just a few of thousands of similar stories shared by American Samoans across the world.

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

A:

No. 

 

As prominent American Samoan Attorney Charles V. Ala'ilima recently testified before Congress:

 

[N]on-citizen national status is not a “unique first-class status.” It is and always has been a subordinate status imposed on – not chosen by – the American Samoan people. ... When the United States flag was raised over Pago Pago harbor 120 years ago, our traditional leaders believed that as part of the deal for transferring sovereignty to the United States they would be recognized as U.S. citizens. It was not until 20 years later that they were informed by the U.S. Navy that in the eyes of the federal government they were not U.S. citizens, even as American Samoans had taken on the obligations of permanent allegiance to the United States. Thus the status of “non-citizen national” was invented – a status no one in the United States even imagined existed until it was imposed by the federal government on non-white overseas populations in the early 1900s, and a status no one in American Samoa asked for.

 

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

 

For more historical context, see this amicus brief filed by the Samoan Federation of America, along with an appendix with nearly 500 pages of historical materials (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

 

For more background, see Citizenship in Empire: The Legal History of U.S. Citizenship in American Samoa, 1899-1960, by Professor Ross Dardani.

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

A:

The legal argument over whether the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from denying citizenship to 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, nor did the court rely in any way on the Insular Cases framework. 

 

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?

A:

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 self-determination in American Samoa?

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

A:

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 self-determination or 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.

 

People born in other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam are recognized as U.S. citizens, but the United States still recognizes that the people of these territories maintain the right to self-determination, including seeking independence if they so choose.

 

As prominent American Samoan Attorney Charles V. Alai’ilima, who represents the Fitisemanu plaintiffs, recently testified before Congress:

 

"The question for American Samoa self-determination and political status is whether the people of American Samoa would like to be part of the United States or would like to be independent – not which individual rights secured by the U.S. Constitution apply. ... So long as American Samoa is under the U.S. flag, my clients simply demand their constitutional right to be recognized as U.S. citizens, even as they continue to support broader questions of self-determination and political status being resolved through the democratic process."

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

A:

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 citizenship be subject to the legislative whims of 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?

A:

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?

A:

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?

A:

In 2020, the Supreme Court in FOMB v. Aurelius Investment, LLC questioned the continued validity of the Insular Cases, indicating "that the Insular Cases should not be further extended," indicating that "the Insular Cases should not be further extended," calling them "much-criticized".

 

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.” 

 

Based on these Supreme Court decisions and other developments, Congressman Gregorio Kilili Sablan recently cautioned that the Insular Cases are “an anchor, not a life preserver” for those seeking to keep afloat laws that protect land and culture in U.S. territories. 

 

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