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Citizenship is an individual right says Alailima

Local attorney Charles Alailima says citizenship is the individual right of a person and does not impact political status or culture — including matai and title issues.

Alailima was responding to media questions during a news conference held Tuesday where he announced that a lawsuit had been filed that same day at the federal court in Washington D.C. challenging the constitutionality of federal laws that deny U.S. citizenship to persons born in American Samoa. (See yesterday’s edition for more details on the lawsuit)

Among those working on the lawsuit is the Washington D.C. based think tank group Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC). Congressman Faleomavaega Eni earlier this year wrote to CAC voicing concerns over their proposed lawsuit, saying it “poses much uncertainty as to whether our Samoan culture will be protected or challenged in federal court.”

He says this issue should be decided by the people of American Samoa and the U.S. Congress, not by a federal court.

During the news conference on Tuesday, it was pointed out to Alailima that there are going to be some concerns from local leaders, who also believe that this issue should go through local leaders and Congress, and not the federal court.

Among the concerns already raised with Samoa News is the impact this lawsuit may have on our political status, culture, and matai system.

“Citizenship is the individual right of the person, it is not a political right, it is not a right that everybody votes on,” said Alailima. “It is basically the right of the person to say ‘I was born on American soil, I am entitled to the rights of a citizen of the United States’. And this is what this case is all about - it’s the individual going to the court saying ‘I am born on American soil, I have a right to citizenship’.”

“In terms of the political status of our islands, which is clearly something that has to be done overall by a vote of the people—that’s something separate from this individual right of citizenship,” he said.

For example, he pointed to the case of Jake King who filed his case with the federal court several years ago on the issue of “his personal right to a trial by jury” in the local court and the federal court ruled that King “has a personal right to a trial by jury.”

“The concerns expressed by larger society about the political implications of this [lawsuit], are really something that need to be discussed separately from this right being asserted now by the plaintiffs,” he said.

Alailima reiterated that the political side of this issue “does not affect us as a territory”, adding that residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are U.S. citizens and still maintain their own territorial status.

He said the lawsuit seeks to grant the right of the individual who decides that they want to go to the United States and ensures they are not going to be treated differently, because they were born in American Samoa.

“In terms on the affect on our culture and our fa’asamoa — the United States [courts] have ruled in a number of cases that citizenship is not a suicide pact for your culture,” he said, adding that Native Americans have gotten citizenship and they still retain their lands, and even got casinos there. “But they have retained control of their land, their families.”

He said this is the same situation for Guam residents, who are U.S. citizens but have been able to retain their land, just like the other territories.

“Citizenship does not say to give up your rights to your own culture and your own customs  and your own traditions,” he said. “Citizenship is personal to people. Our clients here say ‘I want a right to the full participation in the political, social, economic structure of the United States.’”

He said separating out those born in American Samoa as U.S. Nationals was “something invented” by the federal government “to basically avoid having to deal with a lot of people who were coming under the U.S. jurisdiction in the early 1990s [and] is no longer applicable now.”

He said American Samoa has been part of the United States for 112 years and it’s time to “move forward”.

According to a news release given to reporters on Tuesday, in violation of clear language in the U.S. Constitution, current federal law classifies persons born in American Samoa as so called “non-citizen nationals”, a status that was invented by the federal government after the U.S. acquired overseas territories in the early 20th century.

Today, the “only” Americans who are still classified as “non-citizen nationals” are those born in American Samoa.

Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Alaska who often handles cases involving American Samoa nationals, tells The Associated Press that statutes have been passed in other territories defining them as part of the United States and entitling people born there to U.S. citizenship, but not everyone in American Samoa wants that.

Being a citizen at birth would mean all of the U.S. Constitution applies, which would prevent certain communal land ownership rules unique to American Samoa, such as favoring those with Samoan blood, Stock said. "This has been a big debate in American Samoa for a long time," she is quoted by the AP as saying.


In a statement yesterday, Faleomavaega strongly opposed efforts to use the judicial system to force citizenship upon every person who is born in American Samoa.

While respectful of the rights of the plaintiffs in this case, Faleomavaega said, “I believe the choice of becoming a U.S. citizen belongs to the people of American Samoa, and not by judicial legislation.”

“The future of our territory is being threatened by outside forces and we must unite in our opposition to this lawsuit. I firmly believe the future of American Samoa should be decided by the people living in the territory, not by a court 7,000 miles away,” he said.

The Congressman has also sent letters to the Fono leaders summarizing the lawsuit and reiterated his opposition to the suit, which if successful will force citizenship upon everyone born in American Samoa.

In the letter, Faleomavaega says if the federal court rules in favor of the plaintiffs and the Citizenship Clause is applied to American Samoa, “this will set the precedent for other provisions of the U.S. Constitution to be applied in the Territory. This is a cause for concern as the courts may invalidate any of our local laws that protect our Matai system and communal lands.”

“For years, I have warned the people of American Samoa of the dangers of outside forces determining the future of our territory,” he said. “The lawsuit filed this week is the manifestation of our greatest fear, that citizenship will be forced upon us and we could lose our Matai system and communal lands.”

For example, in King v. Andrus case, a federal court applied the jury system to the American Samoa judiciary system against our will, he said, adding that this week a federal court is again asked to decide an issue critical to American Samoa.

“We must ask ourselves — do we want a court to decide whether we become citizens or do we want to decide our own destiny?” he said.

He reiterated that the issue of citizenship should be decided by the people currently living in American Samoa who plan on remaining in American Samoa. 

“...any potential negative consequences of citizenship being granted to all persons born in American Samoa will affect persons living in American Samoa, not those living in the United States,” he said. “For those living in the United States, there are existing pathways to citizenship that allow them to become U.S. Citizens. There is also a fee waiver available for some individuals who are not able to pay the filing fee for the naturalization application.”

“My hope is for a thorough review by the Fono on this important issue,” he added.

Samoa News notes that Faleomavaega has also proposed a bill that would allow American Samoan nationals to apply for US citizenship from the territory, meaning they would not have to live in the US for a specific time period in order to apply. He has held several local forums, as well as addressed the Fono on the issue over the past few years. The bill is currently still pending.