Fed bill introduced for local vote on US citizenship
A federal measure introduced last month in the U.S. House of Representatives includes a provision which provides for a “federally authorized vote in American Samoa” on the question of U.S. citizenship.
This provision was included by Congressman Faleomavaega in the Territorial Omnibus Act of 2013, which covers a wide range of issues — such as minimum wage — for the U.S. territories.
The bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Gregorio Camacho Sablan of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and co-sponsored by Faleomavaega and other congressional delegates from the territories.
According to the bill, the provision pertaining to the citizenship issue for American Samoa may be cited as the ‘American Samoa Citizenship Plebiscite Act’. It provides background information on American Samoa and when it became a U.S. territory as well as its current political status with the United States.
It also states that the purpose of this section of the Omnibus Act, “is to provide for a federally authorized vote in American Samoa on the question of citizenship and if a majority of voters vote for citizenship, to describe the steps that the President and Congress shall take to enable American Samoans to be granted citizenship.”
If the bill is enacted into law, the Secretary of the Interior Department “shall direct the American Samoa Election Office to conduct a plebiscite on the issue of whether persons born in American Samoa desire United States citizenship”.
The question that is to be put forth to voters, according to the provision, is “Do you want persons born in American Samoa to become United States citizens?” with voters marking “yes” or “no” on the ballot.
The provision also explains that as U.S. citizens, individuals born in American Samoa would be United States citizens by Federal law. Further, all persons living in American Samoa who are United States nationals will become United States citizens. Additionally, persons born in American Samoa will no longer be United States nationals,
(Samoa News became aware of the Omnibus Act after it was introduced by Sablan on May 23, but actual language of the bill was not yet available online, until now.)
According to Congressional records, the Omnibus bill has been referred to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, and in addition to the Committees on Education and the Workforce, Financial Services, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce, for a period to be subsequently determined by the House Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.
In a letter this week to Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga with copies to the Fono, Faleomavaega revealed that he included this provision in the Territorial Omnibus Act that Congress will address later this year.
Faleomavaega’s letter was to inform local leaders of his plans to propose a separate and stand alone bill, that would “provide for a federally authorized referendum or plebiscite in American Samoa on the citizenship question” and he is seeking feedback from territorial leaders, before moving forward with the proposal.
Faleomavaega noted the citizenship lawsuit pending before the federal court in Washington D.C. which seeks to have persons born in American Samoa became automatic U.S. citizens.
He said the decision on this lawsuit is expected in the upcoming months and it could apply U.S. citizenship to everyone born in American Samoa, regardless if they want to become citizens or not.
“We have been struggling with the question of citizenship for over 70 years, and can no longer afford to do nothing,” he wrote in the letter. “If we choose to do nothing, outside forces will decide our future for us, as is the case in the citizenship lawsuit.
“The time is of the essence to decide whether the people of American Samoa desire U.S. citizenship,” he said.
According to the Congressman, the proposed legislation will likely come at no cost to the local government, and will allow all eligible voters in American Samoa to decide whether they want to become U.S. citizens.
He pointed out that the decision to become U.S. citizens has been complicated in the past because of concerns regarding the impact of citizenship on “our communal land system and matai titles.”
“However, we know from the examples of other U.S. territories that by becoming citizens through congressional action we can negotiate the terms of our relationship with the U.S. to protect our traditional culture,” he said.
He explained that all other U.S. territories have received citizenship through Congressional action. For example, the CNMI is the latest U.S. territory to receive citizenship, when Congress in 1976 resolved to accept a Covenant of Political Union between CNMI and the U.S.
Within the Covenant, Congress included language which authorizes the CNMI to “restrict acquisition of any lands in the Northern Mariana Islands to persons of Northern Marianas descent”, he explained.
“American Samoa can similarly negotiate an agreement with the U.S. to gain citizenship while at the same time ensuring protection of our culture and communal lands,” he said.
Faleomavaega recalled that one of the recommendations of the 2007 Future Political Status Study Commission Report states that “American Samoa shall continue as an unorganized and unincorporated territory and that a process of negotiation with the U.S. Congress for a permanent political status be initiated.”
The Commission called for a specially tailored Act of Congress to reaffirm the special protective provisions for lands and titles in the Constitution of American Samoa, he noted.
“I welcome your feedback on this draft bill and look forward to working with you and the Fono on this important issue for American Samoa,” he said. (Details of the Congressman’s letter were publicly released yesterday afternoon by his Washington D.C. letter.)
Lolo told Samoa News last week that he believes the choice should be left to each individual whether he/she wishes to become a US Citizen.
“I have always been concerned on the impact of this automatic US Citizen bestowment on our land tenure system,” he said. “Unless there is assurance that our land tenure system will not be affected, I will not support any federal measure that might threaten our land ownership.”