HomeBad Ass AsiansAmerican Samoans Go to U.S. Supreme Court to Gain Citizenship

American Samoans Go to U.S. Supreme Court to Gain Citizenship

 Leneuoti Tuaua is lead plaintiff in the case submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leneuoti Tuaua is lead plaintiff in the case submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By Ed Diokno

Attorneys representing a group of American Samoans seeking U.S. citizenship Monday (Feb. 1) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.

The case, which if successful would recognize a constitutional right to citizenship for those born in the U.S. Pacific territory, was rejected last summer by a federal district court and appellate panel.Tuaua v. United States is a federal lawsuit brought by Leneuoti Tuaua, the Samoan Federation of America, and others born in American Samoa who believe that so long as American Samoa is a part of the United States, people born in American Samoa have the birthright to U.S. citizenship under the Constitution.

“My passport says I am a U.S. national, but not a U.S. citizen. As someone born on U.S. soil who signed up for the draft during the Vietnam War, my family should not be treated as second-class Americans. I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree the Constitution does not allow Congress to create two separate classes of Americans,” said Leneuoti Tuaua, lead plaintiff in the case.

Three of the five Tuaua plaintiffs are veterans; American Samoa has among the highest rates of U.S. military service in the nation, with casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan more than seven times the national average.

Plaintiffs are represented by Neil Weare, president of We the People Project, a national organization dedicated to achieving equal rights and representation for the nearly 5 million Americans living in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia; Arnold & Porter, LLP, an international law firm; and Charles V. Ala’ilima, a prominent American Samoan attorney.

Former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, who has a winning record of arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, also represents them.

Under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, anybody born within the United States is automatically considered an American citizen. However, courts have interpreted that to mean only the 50 states.

RELATED: Why the courts ruled against U.S. citizenship for American Samoans

In other territories like Guam, birthright citizenship is extended through congressional legislation.

Currently, the 55,500 or so American Samoans are considered non-citizen nationals, meaning they don’t have voting rights in federal elections and can’t work in government jobs. They can apply for citizenship, but that is a long drawn-out process and there’s no guarantee they’ll be approved.
Ironically, the President Obama’s Department of Justice lawyers’ argument against citizenship is based on a set of century-old laws called the Insular Cases steeped in racist language.

RELATED: Comedian John Oliver explains the racism vs. America Samoa

“A lot of people are justifiably embarrassed by the Insular Cases because they really do capture an earlier imperial moment that is saturated in white supremacy,” says Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law.

In subsequent cases, the courts have seen fit to grant citizenship to the other U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Marianas but denied that same privilege to the American Samoans.

But it gets even more complicated. It appears that a lot of Samoan officials are reluctant to give up their status because it would also mean the loss of local statutes that give Samoans control of over 90% of the land.

The High Court will look over the case and if four of the nine jurists decide the case merits a hearing the entire court will hear oral arguments. If the court refuses a hearing, the ruling of the lower courts will stand.

Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)

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