US Federal judge rules American Samoans are citizens, then delays implementation pending appeal

Monday, December 16, 2019

On Friday, United States District Judge Clark Waddoups reconsidered his decision made the previous day — that people born in American Samoa are United States citizens and not merely U.S. nationals. Instead, he put a stay on his ruling until the issue is resolved upon appeal.

On Thursday, Waddoups wrote denying American Samoans citizenship violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which established the country's policy of citizenship for every person born on its soil. A 2015 federal court decision said citizenship in United States territories can only be resolved by Congress.

American Samoans, unlike people born in the fifty states and all other U.S. possessions, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, do not automatically gain U.S. citizenship upon birth. Instead, they are called "U.S. nationals" on their passports. That means they may freely move to and live in any other U.S. territory or state, but once there may not vote in federal elections, serve on juries, work jobs that require citizenship or run for elected office.

Three American Samoans, Pale Tuli, Rosavita Tuli, and John Fitisemanu, who had moved to Utah, a state, sued to be allowed to vote and apply for government jobs that require citizenship. Fitisemanu had lived in Utah for more than twenty years. They worked with the organization Equally American.

The government of American Samoa issued a statement agreeing the issue should be decided by Congress and not by judges: "imposition of citizenship by judicial fiat would fail to recognize American Samoa's sovereignty and the importance of the fa'a Samoa [the Samoan way of life]." Their statement also read "imposition of citizenship over American Samoan's objections violates fundamental principles of self-determination."

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case about American Samoans' citizenship status.

The American Samoan delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Aumua Amata, told the press: "Because the residents of American Samoa have vibrant democratic processes and already had a path to citizenship that I had worked to make even more accessible, the ruling is particularly unwelcome and inappropriate[.]"

American Samoa, not to be confused with the nearby independent country Samoa, is an unincorporated U.S. territory but not a state. American Samoa has a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives but no congressional representative or senator, so American Samoans' ability to affect federal legislation is limited.

For an American Samoan, applying for naturalized status costs $725, not counting lawyers' fees.