Op-Ed: Challenging constitutionality denying US citizenship to American Samoans

On Tuesday, I, along with four others born in American Samoa and the Samoan Federation of America, filed a lawsuit challenging a constitutionality of federal laws that deny citizenship to people born in American Samoa.

I am not a lawyer. But I do know it is wrong that the United States is denying American Samoans U.S citizenship at the same time our sons and daughters are risking their lives to defend the American flag overseas. Our people have made a greater sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan than have the people of any other U.S Constitution, [yet] we are denied citizenship and required to go through the same naturalization process as a foreign national in order to be recognized as a U.S citizen.

I believe federal laws that deny American Samoans citizenship should be challenged because I want my children to have the same world of opportunities available to them that are available to any other child born in any other part of the United States. So long as the American flag flies over American Samoa, the United States should not be able to deny us citizenship.

Citizenship would mean that American Samoans would be able to enjoy the  same rights and benefits as other Americans, no matter where we choose to live within the United States. As it stands, because the United States labels us as so-called "non- citizen nationals"- the only Americans labeled this way - we are treated differently when traveling abroad to places like independent Samoa, we face greater difficulties when sponsoring foreign national family members to immigrate to or visit the mainland United States, we are ineligible for certain jobs at the state and federal level, and we are denied the right to vote in every state. If we are equal in times of war to serve in the U.S Armed Forces, we should be equal to others born in the United States when it comes to citizenship. No ifs, ands or buts.

As we think about the issue of citizenship for American Samoans, I believe it is important to look to our history.

On April 17, 1900, when the American flag was raised over Pago Pago harbor, our traditional leaders believed  they had become American citizens. When they were informed by the U.S Navy in the 1920s that American Samoans are nationals, but not citizens, High Chief Mauga, who was one of the signers of the 1900 Deed of Cession, united our people to petition Congress to recognize American Samoans as full U.S citizens. The result was federal legislation that would have recognized American Samoans as full U.S citizens while still preserving our land and title systems. This legislation passed twice in the U.S Senate only to fail in the House — had it passed we would not be having this conversation today.

I for one believe that our traditional leaders were right when they believed that U.S citizenship followed the American flag to our islands.

There is also nothing sacred about so- called "non-citizen national" status, which is just a label invented by the federal government after it acquired American Samoa and other overseas U.S territories, so that Congress could deny the inhabitants of these areas the same rights as other Americans. Over time, the "non- citizen national" label has been replaced by full citizenship in every other U.S  territory except for American Samoa. If we are Americans, then why not citizens?

The historical experience of other U.S territories also shows how citizenship is a separate question from the preservation of land and culture in U.S territories. For example, the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S territory, has land ownership restrictions similar to those in American Samoa, despite the fact that its inhabitants are recognized as citizens. For many decades, the NMI also controlled its own immigration as does American Samoa.

In no U.S territory has citizenship meant the imposition of federal income taxes. And the inhabitants of other U.S territories continue to have the right of self-determination — Puerto Rico  is set to hold a political status plebiscite this Fall. These examples show that citizenship for American Samoans does not dictate that we will lose our land and culture.

The federal government has the power to do a lot  of things, good and bad, in American Samoa. But one power it does not have is the power to deny persons born in American Samoa U.S citizenship. So long as  American Samoa is part of the United States, I believe the U.S Constitution makes that much clear: "All persons born... in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States".

Leneuoti Tuaua is the former Marshal for the High Court of American Samoa. He holds the High Chief title Leilua from his family in Sagone, Savai'i, and the Talking Chief title, Lanu, in Fitiuta, Manu'a.


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