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Concerns over Citizenship Clause lawsuit continue

fili@samoanews.com

Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli has voiced his concerns over having a federal court decide the issue of citizenship for U.S. nationals born in American Samoa becoming automatic U.S. citizens, while attorneys for five American Samoans challenging the constitutionality of federal laws that deny U.S. citizenship to persons born in the territory have responded to Congressman Faleomavaega Eni’s letter to the Fono concerning the lawsuit.

At the center of the lawsuit filed last week at the federal court in Washington D.C. is the  Citizenship Clause which provides: “All persons born… in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States...” The plaintiffs were born in American Samoa, “Therefore, they are U.S. citizens by virtue of the Citizenship Clause.”

Responding to Samoa News calls for comments on the lawsuit, Galeai said each individual has the right to seek or apply to be a naturalized citizen, but he is not in a hurry at this point for a “broader” look at getting citizenship for everyone born in American Samoa and this is something that needs further discussion and debate.

“I share concerns among local leaders and other residents about the federal court making decisions on issues that deal with American Samoa because a federal court ruling — if it favors, for example plaintiffs in this current case — then becomes full force for implementation in American Samoa,” he said.

“I have no problems with each individual person wanting to be a citizen but obtaining it thru a lawsuit at federal court is something different because — again — the court decision favoring the individual, will have serious implications on American Samoa,” he said. “For example, our lands, titles and culture.”

“If there is some special provision to federal law dealing with citizenship for the protection of our Samoan treasures — our lands, customs and culture — then I have no problem with giving every person born in American Samoa automatic citizenship,” said Galeai, who was contacted by Samoa News because he is also a Paramount Chief.

Faleomavaega last Thursday sent a letter to Senate President Gaoteote Palaie Tofau and House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale, reiterating his opposition to the lawsuit, saying this issue should be decided by the people of American Samoa and not by a federal court 7,000 miles away. Copies of the letter were also sent to each Fono member. (See Samoa News edition last Friday for more details on the letter)

Samoa News understands senators had yet to receive a copy of the Congressman’s letter as of late Friday afternoon and there was no word over the weekend if any of the House members got their copies.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by local attorney Charles Alailima, the Washington D.C. law firm of Arnold and Porter with the help of a think-tank group, Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) based in the nation’s capital.

Last Friday morning Alailima sent a letter to the Fono leaders responding to Faleomavaega’s letter (Samoa News learned Friday afternoon that Gaoteote’s office did receive Alailima’s letter).

Alailima said plaintiffs understand the Congressman's concerns but respectfully disagree with his conclusions, both as to the nature of the lawsuit and its potential impact. He says the Congressman’s statement seems to imply that the lawsuit only involves American Samoans living on the mainland of the United States.

Among the plaintiffs are Leneuoti Taua, Fanuatanu Mamea, and Emy Afalava and these three “are concerned, in particular, for their children growing up here and being denied the opportunities and rights of citizens,” Alailima said. “It is deeply hurtful to hear the Congressman say that he thinks his fellow American Samoans — including his neighbors — are an “outside force” and a “threat” to the place we all love.”

“It is equally concerning that the Congressman is urging a challenge by the Fono to a federal court's exercise of its lawful judicial function in interpreting the United States Constitution,” he said. “To suggest that the Fono should stand in opposition to a request by American Samoans that a federal court exercise that function is misguided to say the least.”

He says initial reaction to the lawsuit from people on the street have been overwhelmingly positive. “One woman came to our office with a heartbreaking story of a daughter recently denied a nursing job in a military hospital in Hawaii because that big stamp in her passport said she was not a citizen. Another person related embarrassment at the airport in Samoa when the American Samoans traveling with their U.S. passports with that stamp were singled out from U.S. citizens in the same group and charged an entry fee,” he said.

“The Plaintiffs share the Congressman's concern for the protection of our unique matai and communal land system,” Alailima said, adding that rather than just expressing unsubstantiated fears of what might happen, the Congressman — and all American Samoans — should consider the following:

1.  The Plaintiffs are only asking the court to decide a single question: what does it mean to be “born in the United States”? This is a narrow legal question about individual rights. It is separate and distinct from the Congressman’s concerns about American Samoa’s cultural independence and political self-determination.

2.  American Samoa’s matai and land tenure system is covered under the Deeds of Cession that were signed in 1900 and 1904 by American Samoa’s traditional leaders and later ratified by Congress. Citizenship is separate from these issues. Indeed, our leaders at the time believed that being part of the United States meant that they would be recognized as U.S. citizens. 

3.  In the Puailoa land cases, the federal courts have already recognized that “preserving the Fa’a Samoa by respecting Samoan traditions concerning land ownership” is a “legitimate congressional policy.” Presiding Bishop v. Hodel, 830 F.2d 374, 386 (1987). The distinction between “citizens” and “non-citizen nationals” is simply unrelated to that policy.

4. The High Court of American Samoa has already upheld land ownership issues from challenge under different provisions of the U.S. Constitution, which are not at issue in the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit. In the case of Craddick v. Territorial Registrar, the High Court recognized — in an opinion written by a federal judge — “a compelling state interest in preserving the lands of American Samoa for Samoans and in preserving the Fa’a Samoa, or Samoan culture,” even as it acknowledged that “the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection are fundamental rights which do apply in the Territory of American Samoa.” 1 Am Samoa 2d 11, 12 (1980).

5. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, yet they are afforded the opportunity to decide their own political status. In fact, a political status referendum is scheduled there for November, with independence, free association, and statehood as options for consideration.

6.  People of the U.S. Territory of the Northern Mariana Islands are U.S. citizens, yet they maintain their unique culture and land system, which the federal courts have supported.

According to the attorney, the Plaintiffs all participate in and support their large communal families — whether they are in American Samoa, Honolulu, Seattle or Los Angeles — and they certainly do not wish to lose their culture and connection to American Samoa.

However, they believe it appropriate for the federal courts to address this question of individual constitutional rights and to “say what the law is”.

“The Congressman’s own reference to the jury trial case of King v. Morton shows how his concerns are misplaced. In the King case, the federal courts decided 35 years ago that American Samoans had a fundamental individual right to a jury trial in criminal cases,” he said.

“After that ruling, none of the predictions about the bad consequences of that case for the matai system came true. Like the right to a jury trial, the individual right to constitutional citizenship is separate from issues of land and culture,” he said.

“Plaintiffs seek only a determination of their status as citizens by birth in the U.S. territory of American Samoa. Like the right to a jury trial, the right to speak freely, and other fundamental constitutional rights, the right to constitutional citizenship is an individual right that is not subject to popular vote. It has been more than a century since American Samoa became part of the United States, yet the issue of citizenship has not been resolved. With great respect for our longtime Congressman, the Plaintiffs believe it is time for them to step up and ask a federal court to vindicate their constitutional right to citizenship,” he said.



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