Obama Administration: Citizenship a Privilege, Not a Right, in U.S. Territories

Yesterday, the Obama Administration filed a brief before the DC Circuit arguing that Americans born in U.S. territories have no constitutional right to citizenship.  

Relying on a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases that have been compared to Plessy v. Ferguson, the Obama Administration defended a federal statute that expressly creates two classes of Americans: those who enjoy the protections of U.S. citizenship and those who do not. 

Tuaua v. United States considers whether the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment extends to people born on American soil in a U.S. territory.  The plaintiffs in the case were born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory since 1900.  Among the plaintiffs are three veterans - American Samoa is distinguished as having the highest casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan of any U.S. jurisdiction.  By statute, these plaintiffs and others born in American Samoa are recognized as “nationals, but not citizens, of the United States,” meaning that these passport-holding Americans must naturalize in order to be considered citizens by the federal government. 

 “It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century the Obama Administration is defending two separate classes of Americans,” said Neil Weare, President of co-counsel We the People Project, a non-profit that fights for the day the nearly 5 million residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia are treated as full and equal members of We the People.

“The Obama Administration’s position ignores not only the history of the Fourteenth Amendment, but the history of American Samoa,” said co-counsel Charles V. Ala’ilima, a prominent American Samoan attorney.

The Tuaua plaintiffs filed their opening brief before the DC Circuit in April – they will have the opportunity to file a reply brief in the coming weeks. Filing amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs in May were citizenship scholars represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Members of Congress and former government officials represented by Covington & Burling LLP, and David Cohen, the first American Samoan political appointee to lead the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, represented by Jenner & Block LLP. Scholars of constitutional law and legal history, represented by Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, filed on behalf of neither party, but pushed back against the Government’s reliance on the Plessy-era Insular Cases.  Oral argument in the case is expected this fall.

In February, the D.C. Circuit denied an earlier motion by the federal government to dispose of the appeal before full briefing. In June 2013, the D.C. District Court dismissed the Tuaua lawsuit, setting up this appeal.

For an overview of the constitutional arguments in Tuaua v. United States, please see Neil Weare’s Op-Ed on CNN.com, “Citizenship is a Birthright in U.S. Territories,” published to coincide with a Harvard Law School conference titled “Reconsidering the Insular Cases,” held in February.

Please consider providing financial support to help achieve equal rights for the over 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories through a monthly or one-time donation.

Do you like this post?

Showing 15 reactions

commented 2015-11-28 18:26:56 -0500 · Flag
We are debating a none issues for Island born Puerto Ricans, because congress overrode that Citizenship limitation 1900 in the Jones Act, issues by congressional legislating, extending citizenship to island born Puerto Ricans. The issue continue for American Pacific Islands. We should be addressed. How-ever the process leading to Statehood has been voted down 4 or five times, which is a sure way of securing an American citizenship. Not all Puerto Ricans want it.
commented 2015-04-13 14:31:10 -0400 · Flag
I would like to point out that it is not just the Obama admin that has screwed over the people in territories. It is all of the presidential admins. since territories were granted citizenship. Has congress done anything to fix the issue? Doesn’t look like it. Please remember that it is not just Obama that is in the picture, he’s just the one who has to take the blame. I am sorry Joanna Cruz for your wishing he was not a U.S. citizen but spreading crappy rumors won’t do any good. He is a citizen and no matter how hard you wish it not to be, it is true. For those believing Obama himself is against allowing full rights as citizens read this section:
“Last year President Obama said when any American, no matter where they live, is denied the right to vote “We are betraying our ideals.” This is a quote from the We The People Blog website in you are wanting proof that I’m not making it up go to ”http://www.equalrightsnow.org/u_s_citizens_defend_democracy_can_t_vote_for_president">http://www.equalrightsnow.org/u_s_citizens_defend_democracy_can_t_vote_for_president
More attention needs to be brought to this issue in order for anything to be solved. I honestly hadn’t heard about it until a few months ago and am now doing a paper to bring awareness. Before you start merely pointing fingers and saying you want to impeach a president that has actually done productive things with his career, bring the issue to light instead of letting it hide in the darkness. We need more blogs like this.
commented 2014-09-07 22:14:21 -0400 · Flag
As a resident of Puerto Rico and retired veteran who served proudly in the US Army, I,m surprised that my citizenship is not a right after 100 years serving in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Granada, Persian Gulf, Irak and Afghanistan. What about those who die for? Over 2 million Puertorrican lives in US, that i recomended not vote anymore for Democratic Party.
commented 2014-08-20 00:25:09 -0400 · Flag
OBAMA is a complete IDIOT! to deny us citizenship to a U.S. unincorporated territories citizens is beyond belief…… He himself was born under the same realm of citizenship and to date is still question’s surrounding his u.s.citizenship…. What is good for the goose is good for the gander!!!! AND by virtue…. WE the PEOPLE are requesting for his removal & IMPEACHMENT base on his CITIZENSHIP! and bringing our citizenship to court is a waste of tax payers money …… His place of BIRTH is a question to his U.S. CITIZENSHIP as a U.S. PRESIDENT!!!!
commented 2014-08-18 09:31:58 -0400 · Flag
Obama Administration is busy fighting for the rights of illegals while they are denying rights of people who has fought in almost every single war that the U.S. has engaged in.
commented 2014-08-16 08:25:25 -0400 · Flag
Mr. President, are you serious about your administration vacation spot! Please elaborate about how you came to this questionable citizenship decision.
commented 2014-08-15 16:52:40 -0400 · Flag
Vote to become a full fledged State and the rights will be yours. Every other citizen pays Federal taxes, territories do not. Everyone wants something for free these days. It’s a simple action territories need to fulfill. We have pledged our country to protect these territories and yes many from these areas have payed the ultimate
sacrifice. I’ve lived on Guam for 6 years and still maintain a home there but, there is constantly some factions who think the Federal Government owes them something. Gu was liberated from Japanese occupation and many feel the US owes them for being occupied in the first place. As atrocious as the occupation was, I do not believe the US Govt. is to blame. Organize as a people, become a full fledged State, do your part and you will enjoy the benefits, like every other State.
commented 2014-08-14 21:15:27 -0400 · Flag
Sad, sad sad, people of Guam were liberated from japan in WWII, then the U>S> took away 80% of the land of the chamorro people for 5 decades up till now. At least we know now the truth now. I was proud to call myself an american, but now we know that the us constitution is a farce and we are not protected by it. Thats ok , we are still strong and proud of who we are and that is whats made us survive their occupation of our people and our island for many years. god bless all the people from all the territories. No equal rights, we have representatives in congress that are not allowed to vote, I only hope that our congressional representatives from all insular control territories join forces and make their voices heard through the media outside of the steps of the capital. Its time our reps. think outside the box and fight for our rights. In realty the great U.S. was built by the blood and oppression of the indigenous people and taking of their land to benefit the few for the all mighty dollar. In the U.S. racial inequality is worsening, inner city violence is wide spread throughout the U.S. Prisons are filled like not other country in the world, politics is red or blue, homelessness and poverty in over 50% of the U.S population. One thing I like is I can go to the edge of our island and look across the ocean and say I’d rather be here then there.
commented 2014-08-14 08:04:28 -0400 · Flag
Imagine! He is making decision on what happens in the territories.

commented 2014-08-14 03:41:54 -0400 · Flag
Puerto Rico as a “Protectorate” has a larger population than 22 states, not including D.C.
It has a greater population that the 5 least populated states, not including D.C.
If it were to vote in general elections, it would receive approx. 7 electoral votes.

Its representative in Congress cannot vote on any legislation.

Since Puerto Rico was a territory/colony in 1900, Congress passed a Coasting Trade Act (Foraker Act) which states that all merchandise traded between the island and the United States was to be transported on ships in the United States merchant marine, which was more expensive than that of other countries. It also outlawed cockfighting. The only change since then has been that cockfighting is now legal. In a 1999 study, it was understood that Puerto Ricans pay an extra 20% on all imports, due to the Trade Act, causing Puerto Ricans to overpay over $1 Billion today and adding to the over $50 Billion untaxed monies that leave for the U.S. Mainland every year.

Furthermore, after “Gonzales v. Williams” of 1902, which determined that Puerto Ricans were “non-citizen nationals”, which meant that conscription (the precursor to the Draft, which had been enacted since 1863) could not be enforced, U.S. Citizenship was IMPOSED on the Puerto Rican People on March 2, 1917 via the, Jones–Shafroth Act (Jones Act of Puerto Rico). Two months later the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed and extended to the Island, which was used to draft over 20,000 Puerto Rican Soldiers into World War I.

Now, US Citizenship is a privilege. Our people have only been good for war, trade and land, while unable to have a vote on any matter pertaining to our situation.

U.S. Citizenship has brought privileges to all those people living in Incorporated/Unincorporated Organized/Unorganized Protectorates/Territories of the U.S., but having fought and died for the Stars and Stripes for the past 100 years we have earned the right to our Citizenship not by birth but by blood and honor.

The privilege has been all yours.


A native Puerto Rican U.S. Citizen
followed this page 2014-08-14 01:03:38 -0400
commented 2014-08-14 01:01:58 -0400 · Flag
You have got to be kidding!!! I was born in a US territory…. Obama administration full of CRAPPPP!!! I agree with Guido Zarducci’s comment below… Such sadness! In addition, we house a large strategic fleet command of Air Force and Navy personnel in this region who took land from the people and now we may be looking at citizenship as a privilege?
commented 2014-08-13 23:40:43 -0400 · Flag
I was just saying the same to my husband the other day as I’m from NY as well. Thank you for sharing this.
commented 2014-08-13 21:02:36 -0400 · Flag
Issue and Concern:

I feel remiss; as a born U. S. citizen, born in New York City, I was only able to vote for Sen. Obama in the Democratic primaries. This is a policy that exists for U. S. citizens living in U. S. Territories, that we as citizens forfeit the right to vote for the President.

What I find just as disturbing is that Jewish American citizens living in Israel are able to vote in America for the President. There is the belief that because the Territories are ninety percent black, ethnic people, that we would be too large a voting bloc.

As citizens of the U. S. of America, it is our right to vote for those who will have an impact on our lives in the territories.

This is a Change that needs to be addressed.
commented 2014-08-13 20:15:59 -0400 · Flag
As far as I am concerned, being born in the Us, I find this whole thing absurd!!! If you live in a US Territory and support US Doctrine, then by all means, you should have the right citizenship; based on the individual’s desire. Obama and his whole cabinet should be run out of Washington on a rail after being tarred and feathered for High Treason!!!