Lt. Governor fields questions from U.S. Congressional members
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — US territories looking at independence from the United States, was one question of interest raised by a congressman, during last week’s remote U.S House Committee on Natural Resources, Insular Affairs hearing in which Lt. Gov. Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale testified from American Samoa.
The hearing was on H.R. 279 — “Insular Cases Resolution — pertaining to “Insular Cases”, which is a series of opinions made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901, about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish-American War, and the periods shortly thereafter.
Talauega voiced American Samoa’s “strong opposition” to the measure, which he says that while it’s “well-intended and perhaps, in some circumstances justified, it is a blunt instrument that will not only hasten the destruction of unique cultures within U.S. Territories and Insular Areas, it will destroy the right of the people of American Samoa to democratic self-determination.” (See Samoa News online edition May 13th for details.)
Among the congressional members who asked questions was US Rep. Louie Gohmert, from the 1st Congressional Dist. of Texas and one of his questions was directed to witnesses from the territorial governments. Gohmert recalled that Great Britain was surprised when India sought — and later gained — independence and wondered out loud if any of the territories were also looking at independence, so that the United State may not be caught by surprise.
“Is there a feeling among the different territories to be independent from the United States?” he asked.
“For American Samoa, as far as I know, there’s no serious discussion of going [in] that direction. Some 121 years of being part of the American family, really instills in all of us that we are Americans and part of the American family,” was Talauega’s reply.
What American Samoa wants, he said, is to be “given the opportunity to negotiate in a democratic way, to be provided the opportunity to self-determination... by the people of American Samoa.”
“And that’s why we oppose this resolution and its intended affect, because it empowers [federal] courts to make decisions,” Talauega said, noting for example, an ongoing federal case, on whether people from American Samoa should be citizens by birth.
“And we oppose it because the decision is made by a judge. We don’t oppose becoming a US citizen, but it’s the process. We want that process to be done in a democratic way by the people of American Samoa and its leaders and not by a judge,” he said.
The ongoing federal case referred to by Talauega, is currently before the U.S Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the US State Department along with American Samoa and Congresswoman Uifa’atali Aumua Amata, appealed a lower court’s December 2019 decision, which declared that people born in American Samoa are US citizens. The case was brought in by three individuals who were born in American Samoa but currently reside in Utah.
Oral arguments and written submissions were made last year and all sides are awaiting the outcome of the appeals’ court decision.
During the House committee hearing, Guam legislature’s Vice Speaker, Tina Rose Muna Barnes, responded to Rep. Gohmert’s question, saying that the “decision to choose on whether independent, be a state or have a free association with the United States, should be up to our people to decide. And that process should be afforded to us.”
Samoa News notes that the issue of independence is discussed in a January 2007 report by the Future Political Status Study Commission of American Samoa. The eleven-member commission, created by law in 2005, was tasked with studying alternative forms of future political status open to American Samoa and assess the advantages and disadvantages of each. (Full details of the report are available on the ASG Office of Political Status and Constitutional Review online - https://www.americansamoa.gov/political-staus)
During the House committee hearing, US Rep. Blake Moore of Utah’s 1st District — one of the committee members — posed a question to Talauega: “Since the resolution fails to recognize territory self determination, how do you think it might affect territories that have different interests? How might it be detrimental, if you believe so?”
The former attorney general responded, “It’s detrimental to American Samoa. For example, if this resolution is passed and moves on to the future where the Insular Cases are removed, then the culture of American Samoa is affected.”
“We have our communal land culture that provides that the land is for the native people of American Samoa,” he explained. “That would automatically be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, if the provisions of the [US] Constitution apply to American Samoa.”
Moore replied with a brief remark saying that, “with respect to the culture, I’m from Utah and there’s nothing we appreciate more than our close relationship with American Samoa.”
While the Congressman didn’t elaborate further on the “close relationship” issue, it should be noted that — among other things — there is a large population of Samoans — many of them from American Samoa — who have made Utah their home.
The Equal Protection Clause states that, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” according to the US based National Constitution Center website.
ASG officials in the past years have voiced their concerns over the full implementation of the US Constitution on American Samoa, an unincorporated territory. For example, the Equal Protection Clause, which was raised by American Samoa in its filings with the federal court pertaining to the case pending at the 10th Circuit of Appeals Court.
During a May 2017 presentation before the United Nations Decolonization Committee, Tapaau Dr. Daniel Aga, the Executive Director of the ASG Office of Political Status told the meeting that American Samoans prefer the compromise that limits enforcement of the U.S Constitution’s equal protection clause to limit the risk to Samoan lands. (See Samoa News edition June 5, 2017 for details.)