Pacific Scoop

American Samoans have no right to US citizenship, DC court concludes

American Samoa passport

The 56,000 residents of American Samoa can work, travel freely and join the US army, but they are not considered citizens. Image:

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Fili Sagapolutele of Samoa News

The federal court in Washington DC has dismissed the citizenship lawsuit filed last July by five American Samoans and a California based organisation, whose suit asked the court to declare that all persons born in American Samoa should become US citizens.

American Samoans are today considered US nationals, but not US citizens. This means they can work, travel freely and join the US military, but they cannot vote in federal elections or attend jury duty.

Defendants in the suit were the federal government, and three US State Department officials who last year asked the court to dismiss the case.

Congressman of American Samoa, Faleomavaega Eni, supported the State Department.

On Tuesday this week, the American Samoa Government filed a motion to intervene but was dismissed yesterday by the federal court saying the issue is now moot due to the ruling in the case. 

“Although we are glad that Judge Leon recognised that ‘none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause’, we are disappointed that he was not willing to consider those century-old cases in light of more recent court decisions that explain the need to focus on American Samoa’s unique history and modern circumstances,” said local attorney Charles Alailima, according to Samoa News.

Lead plaintiff, Leneuoti Tuaua said that so “long as American Samoa is US soil, I continue to believe that the Constitution guarantees my family the right to citizenship. It should not be up to Congress.”

Attorney Ala’ilima added that Judge Leon’s decision is just the start of the legal process.

“We’ve known all along that the significant constitutional issues in this case would be decided on appeal, no matter which way the trial judge decided. We respectfully disagree with Judge Leon’s analysis, and we will be discussing the options for appeal with our clients,” he said.

Constitutional disagreement
The plaintiffs asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause extends to American Samoa and that people born in American Samoa are therefore US citizens at birth.

They also argued that the Immigration and Naturalization Act is unconstitutional because it provides that American Samoans are non-citizen US nationals. The main gist of the lawsuit is that all persons born in American Samoa should be automatic US citizens based on the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“Because plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court grants defendants’ motion to dismiss,” wrote US District Court Judge Richard J. Leon in his 17-page decision issued yesterday. He also stated that the court is the proper jurisdiction to determine whether the Citizenship clause applies to American Samoa.

According to the judge, the plaintiffs’ claims all hinge upon one legal assertion— which is that the Citizenship Clause guarantees the citizenship of people born in American Samoa.

However, the defendants argued that this assertion must be rejected in light of the Constitution’s plain language, rulings from the Supreme Court and other federal courts, longstanding historical practice, and pragmatic considerations, the judge noted.

“Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, I agree. The Citizenship Clause does not guarantee birthright citizenship to American Samoans,” said Leon.

The judge pointed out that the Citizenship Clause provides that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

‘Insular cases’
Leon said both parties “seem to agree” that American Samoa is “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States, and other courts have concluded as much.

But to be covered by the Citizenship Clause, a person must be born or naturalised “in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof”, he said.

Thus, the key question becomes whether American Samoa qualifies as a part of the “United States” as that is used within the Citizenship Clause, said Leon, who noted that the US Supreme Court “famously addressed” the extent to which the Constitution applies in territories in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases.

In these cases, the Supreme Court contrasted “incorporated” territories — those lands expressly made part of the United States by an act of Congress — with “unincorporated territories” that had not yet become part of the United States and were not on a path toward statehood.

“In an unincorporated territory, the Insular Cases held that only certain ‘fundamental’ constitutional rights are extended to its inhabitants,” he said. “While none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause, they suggested that citizenship was not a ‘fundamental’ right that applied to unincorporated territories.

American Samoa is an unincorporated, unorganised US territory.

“In short, federal courts have held over and over again that unincorporated territories are not included within the Citizenship Clause, and this Court sees no reason to do otherwise,” Judge Leon said.

$US 675 test
American Samoans need to take the US citizenship test in order to become a US citizen. This includes a fee of $US 675 that residents of all other US territories can dodge, according to

According to the website, American Samoa is the only one of 14 US territories that does not allow an easy path to citizenship for people who move to the mainland US.

In the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, birthright citizenship was granted upon the inhabitants by various statutes many years after the United States acquired them, according to Judge Leon.

“If the Citizenship Clause guaranteed birthright citizenship in unincorporated territories, these statutes would have been unnecessary,” he said. “While longstanding practice is not sufficient to demonstrate constitutionality, such a practice requires special scrutiny before being set aside.”

And while Congress cannot take away the citizenship of individuals covered by the Citizenship Clause, it can bestow citizenship upon those not within the Constitution’s breadth, he said and cited a provision of the Constitution which states that “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory belonging to the United States.”

“To date, Congress has not seen fit to bestow birthright citizenship upon American Samoa, and in accordance with the law, this Court must and will respect that choice,” said Leon.

Happy Congressman
American Samoa’s Congressman Faleomavaega Eni said yesterday from Washington DC that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit “sought to reverse years of legal precedent that has provided for the stable administration of the US territories.”

He said the decision by the federal court is a “victory for all Samoans”, adding that the decision “also reaffirms Congress’ plenary power to provide for citizenship for persons born in U.S. territories.”

Faleomavaega reiterated that he is not opposed to citizenship for American Samoans.

“[H]owever the decision should be made by the people and not by a court. After the people decide they desire citizenship, I can work with Congress on legislation to provide citizenship for persons born in American Samoa,” he said.

Prior to yesterday’s dismissal, the American Samoa Government (ASG) had filed an intervention motion with the federal court in Washington DC noting the outcome will have an impact on local customs and communal land.

The motion noted that ASG and its citizens undoubtedly have an interest in the outcome of this case because the Court’s ruling will greatly affect the governing laws and culture of the island territory.

“ASG and its citizens have long sought to protect the culture of American Samoa and have enacted laws to support this effort.”

Second-rate citizens
The motion noted an example, because land in American Samoa is so intimately tied to the cultural identity of American Samoans, the American Samoan Legislature enacted laws to prohibit the alienation of any communal land without written approval by the Governor of American Samoa.

Additionally, laws have been enacted to ensure that the Samoan culture is effectuated throughout ASG and its departments

ASG said if the Court finds that the Fourteenth Amendment applies universally in American Samoa, these laws, which arguably make distinctions between people according to their heritage, may be held to a higher level of scrutiny or even invalidated.

“This in turn would cause drastic effects to ASG’s ability to govern the territory and protect the Samoan culture in American Samoa. “For these reasons, ASG has a strong interest in the outcome of this case which could be impaired by the Court’s decision and, therefore, should be allowed to intervene.

ASG also cited that its interest is inadequately represented by the current parties in this case and that ASG should also be permitted to intervene pursuant to rule, ie ASG is seeking to defend its interest against the potential harm to American Samoan culture and legal system that would result if the Plaintiffs are successful in redefining their national status.

Read the court’s decision here

Reporter Joyetter Feagaimaali’i-Luamanu contributed to this report.