Back and forth on citizenship and political status

Guest Commentary

I spent Saturday afternoon in Lecture Hall Number One at ASCC. LH1 is a very impressive part of ASCC, so check it out next time you visit our community college. It is so unexpectedly first rate that for the first few moments after walking in the door, you can get disoriented and forget you are still on Tutuila.

The American Samoa Bar Association was recognizing its 40th anniversary with a special program. Various speakers and panelists had their say and it was quite interesting. Some things of note:

Roy Hall said that when he returned to American Samoa with his law degree in 1974, he was only the second American Samoa lawyer (Peter Tali Coleman was the first). Can you imagine? Less than 40 years ago and the territory had only turned out two lawyers. We are still in the early stages of nation-building here!

We didn’t even elect our own governor 40 years ago. The plebiscites took place in the mid-1970s and twice the voters said, “No, thank you” before finally (on the third vote) deciding that they wanted the privilege of electing the governor themselves.

I say “privilege” instead of “right”, because we do not have the right to elect our governor (as we should). We have the privilege granted to us by the Secretary of Interior, who has the authority to grant us that privilege thanks to an Executive Order of the President (I think), who got his authority from the Congress (I think) in 1929, which acted to ratify the Tutuila deed of cession 29 years after it was signed in Pago Pago.

(The deed itself was a memorialization of a deal made by Germany, England and the United States, without the participation of Samoans, but that’s another story).

Judge Elvis Patea reinforced my observation about how this is still the early years of nation building with his talk about the new “case management system” that will be introduced later this year. Until then, we will continue to use the old case management system, which involves things like pencil, paper and green cloth ledger books. Though that may be an exaggeration, it is surprisingly close to the truth of the matter.

(I suspect that lots of agencies still maintain logs using those green-cloth ledger books that were used in 1980 when I went to work for ASG. Governor Togiola Tulafono wants to create an Information Technology Department in ASG to usher in a new era of electronic government; he wants the era of green-cloth books to go the way of the dodo bird. I’m with him on that, but old habits will be hard to leave behind. So far, limited progress has been made and perhaps the new governor won’t feel the same way as Togiola, who is more interested in technology than lots of his peers.)

Hall paid homage to the Samoan Legal Practitioners from days gone by, who argued before the court in matters pertaining to land and titles. The distinguished honor roll included many men who are no longer with us, and whose absence still hurts: Tuia, Lutali, Salanoa, Lutu, Tauese, Tuiasosopo, Faiivae, Tago, Mageo.

All of our elected governors are or have been lawyers or legal practioners, and several of the candidates this year are lawyers (though it may be telling that there are fewer lawyer candidates than retired military officer candidates).

The highlight of the afternoon was a panel discussion on citizenship. Four attorneys passed the microphone back and forth for an hour as the topic was presented and debated: Roy Hall, Afoa Lutu, Charles Alailima, and Fainu'uleleiFalefatu Alailima Utu.

There were several different topics simultaneously being discussed, which kept everyone anxious to hold the microphone and present their various views.

We all learned a few things, and here are some highlights.

It is not a far-fetched fantasy to foresee a day not too far off when a single federal court will, with a single decision in response to a single case brought by a single individual, grant U.S. citizenship to everyone born in American Samoa. The people of American Samoa will not be consulted.

If everyone in American Samoa were deemed citizens, there is an increased possibility of further legal decisions overturning some or all of the race-based provisions in our local laws. This could have permanent effect on land and titles, and some people believe those twin foundations of the fa’aSamoa would be at risk, while others think there are legal maneuvers that could protect the Samoan land and titles even as the territory loses some of its special status and becomes more “mainstream” in its federal relations.

The question of citizenship is not, in and of itself, the same as the question of political status. The two have some relationship to one another, but are not one and the same thing.

American Samoa’s political status is a perennial hot issue for the territory’s leaders, but it may be that most people share the view of an ASCC instructor who asked, “if it ain’t broken, why fix it?”

The lawyers tended to bemoan the fact that after 112 years, our relationship to the US remains a muddle.

Governor Togiola is not happy about it. Congressman Faleomavaega is not happy about it. PM Tuilaepa seems entitled to say a few words about it.

Roy Hall responded forcefully to the woman who asked, “Why fix it?” Noting that she said she was content to have almost all the benefits any citizen gets, Hall said, “that’s not good enough for me. I want ALL the benefits.”

Hall also staked out a clear position that the privilege of voting and deliberating the future should be extended to all local residents, and that race/ethnicity should not be a criteria. He wants Samoans, Tongans, Koreans, Fijians, Chinese, Filipinos, etc. to all have a voice (once they have met certain residency requirements).

Hall said using a racial basis is simply wrong and violates what he believes to be fundamental human rights. He deplored the fact that our political system ignores non-voters and caters only to the class of people who are voters (and who make only about 50% of the local population, and who are disproportionately represented in the government employment rolls).

Afoa opined that decisions about these matters should only be made with input from the people (and I don’t think his idea of “the people” is as inclusive as Hall’s). He said he loves the Samoan culture and that makes him cautious about changes that might put it at risk.

Fainu’ulelei noted that it is not accurate to say our forefathers negotiated the Deed of Cession, since it was hammered out by the colonial powers with no input from Samoans. He favors negotiating now, in the context of moving forward in a positive direction after 112 years of relying upon the deed that we had little say in.

Alailima wants to get off the fence we are now perched upon. American Samoa, he thinks, should better define and deepen its ties to the US, or look west and become more involved with Samoa and the Pacific community. None of the other panelists seemed to have any appetite for the “west-looking” suggestion.

Towards the end of the discussion, comments were offered by Danny Aga, who was a leader of the Political Status Review Commission not so many years back. Aga said he came to the panel discussion “to hear the best legal minds of our generation” provide their views, and what he heard was a lack of clarity.

Aga said that protection of land and titles is the foremost concern of most people, and most people don’t think that obtaining US citizenship is worth jeopardizing our unique land and title laws, which might not be considered legal in a place where everyone is a citizen living under the full purview of the U.S. constitution.

His views seemed accurate to me, but as we have learned and constantly relearn, if we are passive, things will happen to us that we cannot control and for which we are not ready. Things like Minimum Wage mandates. Things like a federal court decision conferring citizenship on everyone here. Things like extending federal immigration control to American Samoa (as happened in the Northern Mariana Islands).

Many of our leaders who have to operate in the murky soup of our political status situation (“unincorporated, unorganized”) are itchy to change the status quo and forge a better, better-defined relationship with the U.S.

This subject is not going to go away, but the terms of negotiation might change without our involvement due to unilateral decisions made by federal courts, officials and deliberative bodies.


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