Forum on U.S. National status highlights community divide
A public forum, held by Congressman Faleomavaega Eni, last Thursday, on his proposed piece of federal legislation to grant U.S. National status to foreigners who have lived legally in American Samoa for more than 20 years, brought into focus the divide that exists in the community on the issue — highlighting concerns about voting rights and the belief that native American Samoans will come to be out-numbered by foreigners living in the territory.
Current federal law grants U.S. National status to all who are born in American Samoa.
The forum that lasted for more than five hours saw 15 members of the community testify, with others submitting written statements.
During the forum, the issue of a referendum was raised by Sualevai Sualevai, who asked if this proposal could be placed on a referendum during the November 2012 general election. Faleomavaega answered “yes”, the Fono could put this matter via an approved resolution, which then goes to the governor to be placed on the ballot as a referendum.
Faleomavaega stated, “Give people a voice. I want the people’s voice.”
Pulu Ae Ae Jr., in his testimony, recommended amending federal law to allow these legal longtime residents of the territory to seek U.S. Citizenship from the territory, instead of granting them U.S. National status.
Pulu believes that most immigrants living in the territory are here to gain entrance into the U.S., adding that he believes these legal residents want a chance to gain a green card issued by the federal government, which would then pave the way for them to seek U.S. citizenship.
Ultimately, like several others that night, Pulu voiced opposition to any proposal that would grant U.S. National status to foreigners who have lived legally in the territory.
Another vocal opponent was Teresita Maulupe, who said she is concerned about the over population of the territory and “I feel we are becoming a minority in our own native American Samoa.”
Rugby Reid, who was also against the proposal, said, “I don’t want someone from another country to claim the U.S. National status”. Her biggest concern, which was later voiced by others who opposed this proposal, are foreigners claiming U.S. National status, resulting in them being able to vote in local elections.
“This is our home and we need to protect our home,” said Reid, who is also concerned with the influx of foreigners coming to the territory and then making “native American Samoans” the minority years later in their own native land.
Sandra King-Young echoed the same concern about American Samoans becoming a minority in their own land. “Right now I cannot support it,” she said, saying that more discussion is needed on this proposal.
“In principle” however, she supports the bill for long time legal residents to have the opportunity to become a U.S. nationals — but the issue of concern right now, she said — is the right to vote that these individuals will have by becoming U.S. nationals.
She also pointed out the lack of enforcement of current local immigration laws and “if we are not careful we’d end up like the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands” whose borders are now controlled by the federal government.
Jim McGuire said he supported the proposal, but the problem he saw is lack of immigration law enforcement. He also pointed out that his wife of 30 years cannot vote in the territory, although she is a legal resident.
Faleomavaega in response to concerns about “native American Samoans” later becoming a minority here, told the witnesses that he agrees with their concerns, but he said don’t blame the Koreans and other foreigners for being here. It was American Samoans who brought many of those foreigners here, he said, also reminding those present that American Samoa brought in more than 2,000 foreign nationals as part of the local workforce — referring to the canneries.
“What can we do to protect the indigenous people of American Samoa? It’s a challenge,” said the Congressman.
Reasons to support the proposal were varied, with the issue of the right to vote, doing the right thing, as well as it being a matter of ‘fairness’ being noted.
Moli Lemana, a legal resident, said that while he gets all benefits as a legal resident, one benefit he is missing is the right to vote. He asked opponents to change their minds and give him and others in a similar situation this last right — to vote in local elections.
Esther Wall said, “If we brought them here to work for us in the field... what other kind of thank you can we give them?” she asked. “Do what is right. Do what is good for the people we brought here to work for us.”
Ali’imau Scanlan Jr., who submitted written testimony because he was unable to provide verbal testimony due to another cultural obligation, encouraged the Congressman to formally introduce this measure in the U.S. Congress.
“This is an issue of fairness. The people in question have made American Samoa their home for the past twenty years or more,” he said. “During this time they have paid their fair share of taxes to the local government and have contributed to the development of the local economy in a number of ways.”
He said the closure of one cannery back in 2009 highlighted local dependence on workers from Samoa and other Pacific islanders who contiunue to keep the canneries operating by doing those jobs that American Samoans do not want to do.
“It is no secret that the remaining cannery would also close if all these foreign workers decided to return home,” he added.
Later in the week, Samoa News will report on other testimonies on this hearing as well as testimony heard on another proposal by Faleomavaega to allow U.S. Nationals living in American Samoa to apply for U.S. citizenship directly from here.