Samoan Federation of America, Inc.: “We need to move out of this culture of fear”
The involvement of a non profit Samoan organization —Samoan Federation of America, Inc.— in the lawsuit filed at the federal court in Washington D.C. challenging the constitutionality of federal laws denying U.S. citizenship to persons born in territory has raised local questions on who they are and why they are involved.
Plaintiffs in the case are five individuals and the Carson, Calif., based organization, headed by High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, who was born in American Samoa. While it has been around for many years, there are many local residents not familiar with the organization and its mission.
According to the complaint, the group is a social services organization that serves the Samoan community in the greater Los Angeles area. Founded in 1965, it is one of the oldest Samoan organizations on the mainland.
It’s activities include helping promote the political empowerment of the Samoan community in California; and it holds regular voter registration drives during election years. It is already planning its drives for the 2012 election.
“Recognition by the United States that all persons born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens would significantly advance the Samoan Federation’s efforts to increase the political voice of the Samoan community,” the complaint says. Additionally, the group also expends some of its limited resources helping members of the Samoan community with the complex naturalization process and family immigration issues.
For example, the Samoan Federation runs a weekly English-as-a-Second-Language class for senior citizens that is intended, in part, to prepare Samoan speakers for the naturalization exam and interview. It also runs a referral service for individuals who are classified as “non-citizen nationals” and who require naturalization or other assistance.
According to the complaint, if the defendants were to recognize that all persons born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens, the Samoan Federation would not have to divert its limited resources to helping persons classified as “non-citizen nationals” to naturalize, and it could better assist them with other needs.
Asked about his personal reasons for joining the lawsuit, Loa told Samoa News that for over 20 years advocating for American Samoans living in California, “I have personally watched and suffered along with thousands of American Samoa nationals, countless hours of paperwork, expending a lot of money, standing in the cold long lines in front of the immigration building in Los Angeles trying to become a U.S. Citizen.
“In most cases, the end result is sheer frustration and a feeling of unworthiness, because there is no guarantee that all this work would be successful,” he said via e-mail from California yesterday.
Asked what he hopes this lawsuit will achieve for the federation, Loa replied, “It would be a victory for each individual that is hungry for participation in the voting process, and to have his voice be counted. It would definitely save us a lot of time and money in the citizenship processing, so we can concentrate more on the voter registration aspect.”
Days after the lawsuit was filed, Congressman Faleomavaega Eni issued a statement saying he respected the rights of the plaintiffs, who were born in American Samoa, to file their lawsuit. He also “appreciates the frustration of the Samoan Federation of America that struggles to meet the needs of Samoans who are U.S. nationals who cannot vote in national elections and are precluded from certain jobs that require U.S. citizenship.”
“However, I believe the choice of becoming a U.S. citizen belongs to the people of American Samoa, and not by judicial legislation,” Faleomavaega said.
Asked for his reaction to Faleomavaega’s statement, Loa said, “After 112 years of existence under this 'unorganized structure, we need to move On and Out of this 'Culture of the Fear' we find ourselves under. Like the man said, 'The only thing we need to fear, is fear itself'.
“It makes good political sense to always say 'let the people of American Samoa decide', it makes us sound patriotic. The truth of the matter is, we are stuck in the rut! Let us have some faith in the system.
“Whether we Win or Lose, I would consider it a 'Win' for the people of American Samoa, for bringing this injustice to the forefront and to the attention of the people of the United States of America.
“As always, the job of the Samoan Federation of America and its' Board of Directors, is to help people living in Los Angeles, with their citizenship as guaranteed by the constitution. We have suffered long enough,” he said.
Other plaintiffs in this case are: Leneuoti Tuaua (the lead plaintiff), Fanuatanu Mamea, Emy Afalava, Va’aleama Fosi and Taffy-Lei Maene. (See Samoa News edition on July 12 on background information on Tuaua and Mamea — both currently reside in the territory).
Plaintiff Emy Fiatala Afalava, who currently resides in Tafuna, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1981 before being transferred to active duty in 1985 stationed in Fort Hood, Texas.
He was deployed in 1990 as part of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, serving in the infantry during the liberation of Kuwait. He also served overseas in Germany and Korea before being honorably discharged in 1996.
In 2010, Afalava was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his experiences in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Before returning to the territory in 1999, he resided in the U.S. for about 13 years and could not obtain a U.S. passport proving his citizenship. The fact that the defendants do not recognize Afalava’s citizenship was, and continues to be, emotionally distressing to him, the complaint alleges.
Afalava would like to obtain a U.S. passport recognizing that he is a citizen so that he can enjoy the same rights and benefits and be eligible for the same opportunities as all other persons born in the United States, it states.
VA’ALEAMA TOVIA FOSI
Another plaintiff, Honolulu resident Va’aleama Tovia Fosi was recruited by the U.S. Army while he was a senior in high school in the territory. In 1983, Fosi enlisted in the Army Reserves on active duty status while attending American Samoa Community College. In 1985, HE took inactive status in the Reserves when he transferred to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
While in college, Fosi sought part-time employment, but discovered that because the Defendants classified him as a “non-citizen national,” he was ineligible for federal work study programs and certain other federal employment opportunities, the complaint alleges.
He was commissioned in 1987 as an officer in the Hawaii Army National Guard but in 1993 transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve in Hawaii. In 1994, he was honorably discharged as a First Lieutenant.
His status as a “non-citizen national” currently prevents him from enjoying rights available to other persons born in the U.S., including the right to vote and to bear arms under Hawai’i law, the complaint alleges.
Maene currently resides in Seattle, and the complaint alleges that because the U.S. government refused to recognize her as a citizen, she lost her job at the Washington state Department of Licensing, depriving her of income and health insurance.
It further alleges that because of her classification as a “non-citizen national”, she has also been deterred from applying for other jobs requiring proof of U.S. citizenship, as well as being deprived of the ability to sponsor her mother’s application for an immigration visa. It has also prevented her from obtaining an enhanced state driver’s license that would make travel to Canada easier.