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Eni says citizenship question should be decided by the people, not the courts

Congressman Faleomavaega Eni has maintained that granting U.S. citizenship to persons born in American Samoa should be a decision made by the people of the territory and not by a federal court, whose decision can seriously impact Samoan culture and traditions.

Faleomavaega reiterated his stand on this issue in a news release last Friday responding to local attorney Charles Alailima’s media statement regarding the Congressman’s amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief supporting the U.S. State Department’s move to dismiss the citizenship lawsuit, in which the lead plaintiff is local resident Leneuoti F. Tuaua.

The Congressman claims that Alailima — through the media statement — seeks to spread misinformation to the people of American Samoa, which he finds disappointing.

He says he wanted to set the record straight by responding to some of Alailima’s comments.

Alailima had written that the State Department’s “argument that... American Samoa is not part of ‘the United States’ for purposes of the Citizenship Clause has no merit whatsoever.”

Faleomavaega responded, saying that Alailima failed to provide any legal authority to support his assertion that American Samoa is part of the United States for purposes of the Citizenship clause.

As noted in his amicus curiae brief, Faleomavaega said the U.S. Supreme Court has, for over a century, held that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not extend birthright citizenship to United States nationals who are born in unincorporated territories. (He cited a federal case in 1901 - Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 251 — to support his argument.)

Faleomavaega said he was also accused by Alailima of speaking out against the individual right to citizenship protected by the U.S. Constitution’ and Tuaua had stated that it is “hurtful that my own Congressman believes Congress has the power to deny citizenship to my family and to me, and is supporting the effort to deny us our constitutional rights.”

According to the Congressman, these accusations could not be further from the truth.

“I support the individual right of every person born in American Samoan to decide for themselves whether or not they want to become U.S. citizens,” said Faleomavaega. “Any person born in American Samoa is free to apply for U.S. citizenship through the regular naturalization process.”

“However, it is well established that Congress has the power to regulate birthright citizenship in any U.S. territory,” he said and cited the cases of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands, in which residents were granted birthright citizenship by congressional action.

“In every instance where residents of a U.S. territory were granted birthright citizenship, not one occurred by judicial decision, as Mr. Alailima is attempting to do in the Citizenship case,” he said. “Mr. Alailima is advocating that citizenship be forced on all the people in American Samoa by judicial decree. If the Citizenship lawsuit is successful, people in American Samoa will not have a choice but to become U.S. citizens.”

Faleomavaega also responded to Alailima’s claims that “...when American Samoa’s traditional leaders signed the Deeds of Cession, they believed that citizenship was part of the deal”, saying that the attorney “neglects to mention that when American Samoa’s leaders were offered U.S. citizenship via Organic Act legislation in the 1930s and the 1950s they were concerned about potential negative consequences that birthright citizenship could have on the Samoan culture.”

“Since the 1950s, new developments have shown that American Samoan culture can be preserved if citizenship is granted via Organic Act legislation,” he said and noted that in 1990, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of appeals rejected a constitutional challenge to racially restrictive land alienation laws in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

He explained that the  Ninth Circuit held that the CNMI status as an unincorporated territory was a factor in favor of upholding the restrictions against an equal-protection challenge. “By using the Congressional process to obtain citizenship, American Samoans can ensure that our communal lands and matai system are protected,” he said.

Alailima neglected to mention the threat that granting birthright citizenship to American Samoans will have on local communal lands and matai titles, said Faleomavaega, who pointed out that the existing legal framework established by Congress and the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases, prevents the full U.S. Constitution from applying to U.S. territories.

“If the Citizenship Clause is applied to American Samoa, it is likely that the entire U.S. Constitution will apply to the territory.  The equal-protection clause of the Constitution will subject our communal land and matai title systems to heightened judicial scrutiny,” Faleomavaega added.

The Congressman reiterated his long standing view and opinion that he does not oppose birthright citizenship for the people of American Samoa.

“If the majority of American Samoans want to become birthright citizens, I will work with Congress to grant citizenship to people born in American Samoa,” he said.  “However, I do oppose the imposition of citizenship on the people of American Samoa through a lawsuit by four individuals, since this judicial action could cause serious disruption to our culture.”

“As I mentioned before,  this decision should be put to the people of American Samoa, and not to a court.”  Faleomavaega concluded.

The Alailima news release was published in the Nov. 13 edition of Samoa News while Faleomavaega’s brief was in the Nov. 9 edition.