Fitisemanu v. United States - Equal Citizenship in U.S. Territories

John Fitisemanu is a proud passport-holding, tax-paying American; But Not Recognized As a U.S. Citizen Because of Where He Was Born on U.S. Soil.

John Fitisemanu was born in American Samoa - a U.S. territory since 1900. As a result, he is denied the right to vote in Utah based on a discriminatory federal law that purports to label him as a "national, but not a citizen, of the United States." Mr. Fitisemanu, and others born in American Samoa, are expressly labeled as second-class Americans - federal policy requires that his U.S. passport include a disclaimer in all capital letters that “THE BEARER IS A UNITED STATES NATIONAL AND NOT A UNITED STATES CITIZEN.” 

Mr. Fitisemanu and other Utah residents born in American Samoa (Pale and Rosavita Tuli pictured), along with the Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition, are now defending their right to citizenship in court.

The plaintiffs in Fitisemanu v. United States argue that Congress does not have the power to redefine the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship to treat those born in U.S. territories as second-class Americans. The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment unequivocally guarantees citizenship to persons born on U.S. soil, whether born in a state, territory, or the District of Columbia. They also argue it is time to overrule the Insular Cases, a series of racist Supreme Court cases that established a doctrine of "separate and unequal" for residents of U.S. territories and have been relied on to deny recognition of birthright citizenship in U.S. territories. Justice Gorsuch recently declared "that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation," with Justice Sotomayor calling them "odious and wrong."

The United States argues that Congress has the power to turn birthright citizenship on and off in U.S. territories. Elected officials from American Samoa support the U.S. position that questions of citizenship in U.S. territories are up to Congress, while officials from other U.S. territories argue that birthright citizenship is guaranteed by the Constitution and that the Insular Cases should be overruled. 

Plaintiffs are represented by Equally American, a non-profit that advocates for equality and civil rights in U.S. territories, attorneys at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP, and Charles V. Ala’ilima, a prominent American Samoan attorney.

In June 2021, a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit reversed Judge Waddoups landmark 2019 ruling in favor of Mr. Fitisemanu and his fellow plaintiffs. The Fitisemanu plaintiffs are seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bottom line: If you are born on U.S. soil, citizenship is a right, not a privilege. 

U.S. Supreme Court (Docket)

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Petition for Rehearing En Banc


U.S. District Court for the District of Utah

Case Updates

Press Coverage

Other Resources

More about U.S. citizenship and American Samoa is available in this FAQ page.

More about the campaign to overrule the Insular Cases is available here.

Photo Credit: Keil Creations

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