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Am Samoans aren't actually citizens

Lead plaintiff John Fitisemanu's passport says, "THE BEARER IS A UNITED STATES NATIONAL AND NOT A UNITED STATES CITIZEN." (Katrina Keil Youd / Equally American)
Does that violate the Constitution?

Los Angeles, CA — They are called American Samoans. But many residents of the U.S. territory — an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean — don't feel American. That's because people born in American Samoa are not U.S. citizens unless one of their parents is a citizen.

A lawsuit filed in Utah last month against the State Department and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to change the American Samoans' status from noncitizen U.S. nationals to citizens.

The State Department's policy and practice of refusing to recognize birthright citizenship of people born in American Samoa "violates the Fourteenth Amendment," according to the lawsuit. This article of the U.S. Constitution states that all people born in the U.S. "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof," are citizens.

"That is not dependent on congressional grace," said Neil Weare, the attorney leading the suit and president of Equally American, a nonprofit group that advocates for equality and civil rights for Americans living in U.S. territories.

Weare said the U.S. government had given American Samoans "a badge of inferiority" that diminishes their standing in their communities and in the nation as a whole.

"This continuation of a second-class or kind of caste system in the United States today is completely at odds with the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment," he said.

Officials at the State Department declined to comment because the case was ongoing.

Here's some clarification on the status of American Samoans:

Why is it that people born in other U.S. territories are citizens at birth but American Samoans are not?

"It's kind of a piling-on of circumstances that have led to American Samoa being the odd island out," said Sam Erman, an expert in constitutional law, legal history and the Supreme Court at USC.

Initially, no U.S. territorial island residents received citizenship, Erman said. A series of Supreme Court opinions in the early 1900s, known as the "Insular Cases," established different rules for "incorporated territories" such as Arizona and New Mexico, which were considered to be en route to becoming U.S. states, and for "unincorporated territories," which were not. There are now five inhabited unincorporated territories — Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.

The unincorporated territories were never expected to have a shot at statehood or citizenship, until Congress decided to add them on a case-by-case basis over the years, Erman said.

The change in status has not happened for American Samoa, a cluster of islands some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii with a population of about 55,600 people. American Samoa leadership includes a governor and a nonvoting delegate to Congress. A U.S. territory since 1900, American Samoa is different from Samoa, a nearby independent nation.

"In order to get citizenship you need to have the sense among the U.S. Congress that the population on the island wants the citizenship and you have to have a U.S. Congress willing to give the citizenship," Erman said. "Those haven't aligned yet for American Samoa."

Do most American Samoans want to be U.S. citizens?

It depends on who you ask.

"American Samoans are not all of one mind on this," said Charles Alailima, an American Samoan attorney with offices in American Samoa and the Seattle area. "Some feel they have been given a special status by the United States. Some people feel that we're special because we're nationals, not knowing the history of why the U.S. made this distinction."

American Samoa has never held a formal plebiscite on either citizenship or political status.

Read more at The LA Times