American Samoans, long denied birthright citizenship, finally won a court victory in the quest towards equality.
The lawsuit that brought the ruling didn’t originate in the island territory but in the state of Utah where three Samoan American residents filed their claim.
“American Samoans owe permanent allegiance to the United States,” ruled Judge Clark Waddoups in the US District Court for the District of Utah. “They are therefore ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of the United States.” Since American Samoa is “within the dominion of the United States,” the territory must be considered part of the country, he wrote.
“This court is not imposing ‘citizenship by judicial fiat.’ The action is required by the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment as construed and applied by Supreme Court precedent,” wrote Waddoups.
The government, Waddoups said, “shall issue new passports to plaintiffs that do not disclaim their U.S. citizenship.”
The Department of Justice, which argued against the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday (Dec. 13).
In court papers, the department’s lawyers argued that the Constitution does not require birthright citizenship for anyone born in an unincorporated territory and that “any remedy here must come from Congress, not the federal judiciary.”
“This court is not imposing ‘citizenship by judicial fiat.’ The action is required by the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment as construed and applied by Supreme Court precedent,” wrote Judge Clark Waddoups in the US District Court for the District of Utah.
“Further, Plaintiffs are American Samoans. They brought this action seeking to realize their rights to citizenship under the 14th Amendment,” he added. It’s unclear whether Waddoups’ order applies to American Samoans beyond Utah.
“It’s an overwhelming victory but it’s the first step in what will likely be several more steps,” said Neil Weare, attorney for the plaintiffs and the president and founder of the non-profit Equally American.
The plaintiffs, John Fitisemanu, Rosavita Tuli and Pale Tuli, for years have lived and worked in Utah, which has a large Samoan community.
American Samoa, a U.S. territory since 1900, is a cluster of islands 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii perpetually stuck in a legal loophole. People born in the territory are labeled U.S. nationals. Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the U.S., apply for certain government jobs, or serve on a jury – despite paying taxes to Uncle Sam. They’re even issued special U.S. passports that say: “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”
Residents of other US territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico, are granted birthright citizenship with all the rights granted US citizens — birthright or naturalized — except the right to vote for President.
A 2016 case seeking citizenship was rejected based on the racist nature of set of court decisions called the Insular Cases, which gave preference to the territories where majority of its residents were White and referred to the Samoans as “savages.”
The precedent set by the Insular Cases coupled with the reluctance of the leadership of America Samoa gave the courts reason enough to deny that claim.
It is not clear how far-ranging the Utah ruling will apply beyond the state, including for those living in American Samoa.
Resistance will likely come from American Samoan government. Leaders fear residents would lose autonomy over local laws, which includes a law that allows the land to be communally owned by Samoan families. About 90 percent of American Samoa falls under this status. The land cannot be sold or rented to anyone “whose blood is less than one-half Samoan.”
This lawsuit raises an interesting — if applicable — major question over whether the millions who lived in the Philippines while the country was a US territory for five decades until 1946 would also be able to seek US citizenship, said Sam Erman, an expert in constitutional law and a University of Southern California professor. If the law is applied to this situation, Philippine residents would be 74 years old by now but the ruling could possibly be extended to their children.
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