PAGO PAGO, American Samoa >> A group of five people have filed a federal lawsuit arguing they should be U.S. citizens by virtue of being born in American Samoa, the only U.S. territory that doesn’t grant that birthright.
The lawsuit filed this week in Washington, D.C., challenges the constitutionality of federal laws that make those born in American Samoa U.S. nationals but not citizens like those born in other territories.
In Puerto Rico, territorial status grants residents U.S. citizenship, but they pay no federal income taxes and cannot vote in presidential elections. Their congressional representative also cannot vote in Congress.
Those born in American Samoa are considered nationals, who also don’t pay federal income taxes and can’t vote for president. Nationals must follow the same procedures for naturalization as those who are permanent legal residents, which includes taking tests on English proficiency and American civics, even though English is widely spoken in American Samoa and public schools teach U.S. history.
“If we are American Samoans, then why not citizens? I believe American Samoans deserve the same right and benefits as all other Americans,” said lead plaintiff Leneuoti Tuaua.
Tuaua wanted to pursue a law enforcement career in California but couldn’t because of his status as a U.S. national, according to the complaint. He and fellow plaintiffs Fanuatanu Mamea and Emy Afalava live in the territory. Plaintiff Vaaleama Fosi lives in Honolulu, while Taffy-Lei Maene lives in Seattle.
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, explained Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Alaska who often handles cases involving American Samoa nationals.
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 said.