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“Nationals” but not “Citizens”: How the U.S. Denies Citizenship to American Samoans

A man holding the American flag after a naturalization ceremony.
American Samoans are Americans. It’s time we started treating them as such.
A man holding the American flag after a naturalization ceremony.
Gabriela Meléndez Olivera,
Former Director of Strategic Communications ,
Adriel I. Cepeda Derieux,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Voting Rights Project
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May 22, 2020

UPDATE (8/6/21): The ACLU filed a new amicus brief at the Tenth Circuit in Fitisemanu v. United States in support of the plaintiffs’ petition for an en banc review of the 10th Circuit’s panel decision. Our brief calls for a review of the panel majority’s ruling that the Citizenship Clause does not apply to people born in American Samoa and argues people born in American Samoa and others similarly situated are entitled to birthright citizenship.

With one glaring exception, all persons born in the United States or its territories are U.S. citizens. The exception are persons born in American Samoa — a U.S. territory since 1900 — who hold an obscure and discriminatory status as “non-citizen nationals.” In December, a Utah federal court rightly held that because American Samoa is a U.S. territory and part of the United States, the Constitution’s Citizenship Clause applies to persons born there just as it does to those born in the 50 states.

We recently filed an amicus brief supporting this ruling. Appearing before the 10th Circuit, we argue that American Samoans are constitutionally entitled to U.S. citizenship and should enjoy all of the rights and protections that citizenship entails. The case revolves around John Fitisemanu, who has lived in Utah for over two decades, but is ineligible to vote there because he was born in American Samoa. John is a husband, a father of three, and a health care worker. As a taxpaying Utah resident, John wished to work for the government, but kept hitting walls because of his status. John and his co-plaintiffs — other Utah residents born in American Samoa — filed the lawsuit to secure their right to citizenship and their right to vote in the November 2020 general election.

The intermediate “non-citizen national” status has denied thousands the right to vote in most elections held in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Among members of our nation, American Samoans truly stand alone: Persons born in other U.S. territories (for example, Puerto Rico) are citizens at birth and can vote in U.S., state, and local elections upon moving to one of the 50 states. And since American Samoans owe permanent allegiance to our country and were born in a territory under exclusive U.S. control for 120 years, it is difficult to see why laws that limit voting to citizens should automatically disenfranchise American Samoans.

Still, voting isn’t the only area where American Samoans are excluded from the core tenets of citizenship: Even if they reside in one of the 50 states, they may be denied the opportunity to run for office and represent their communities. In a recent example, Sai Timoteo — an American Samoan who ran in 2018 as a Hawaii state representative for the Republican Party — ended her run when she was disqualified by decades-old policies barring American Samoans from holding public office. These policies leave American Samoans on the outside looking in on our nation’s most revered democratic traditions.

The exclusion of American Samoans from these traditions, of course, means they aren’t represented in local, state, or federal government. But there is more: Persons born in American Samoa are denied the right to serve on juries, do not enjoy the same rights as U.S. citizens to petition for immigrant status on behalf of family members, and have to traverse a burdensome naturalization process if they wish to become U.S. citizens — again, notwithstanding the fact that they are born “Americans.”

Moreover, even the more mundane harms of “non-citizen national” status are onerous. For example, federal, state, and local laws often require U.S. citizenship as a condition for public employment. That requirement excludes American Samoans from employment as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, or public school teachers. They can’t be court reporters in Utah, optometrists in New Mexico, or funeral home directors in Oklahoma, to name a few of the professions into which they’re barred entry. Even getting a driver’s license can be an issue. These laws and policies gravely limit everyday life, liberties, and opportunities for American Samoans living in the mainland U.S. — a reality for over 100,000 people.

As we note in our brief, American Samoans also serve in the U.S. military at remarkably high rates. In 2007, for example, American Samoans died in Iraq and Afghanistan at a higher rate per capita than troops from anywhere else in the U.S. or its territories. “Those wartime losses [were] strikingly tangible on the island: In keeping with local custom, most [returned] to be buried in the front yard of their family home, their graves flanked by the flags of both the United States and American Samoa,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. Yet unnaturalized American Samoan servicemembers and veterans cannot vote for their commander in chief, serve in specialized services like the Special Forces, or rise to be officers in the military that they serve.

American Samoa has been part of the national fabric for more than a century. We should no longer deny persons born there the benefits and rights to which all people born on U.S. soil are entitled. Doing so only perpetuates systems that foster stigma and division in our communities. The 10th Circuit can and must affirm American Samoans’ right to citizenship.

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