American Samoa suit seeks US citizenship
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.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory that doesn't grant citizenship by virtue of birth.
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, home to 56,000, 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.
Citizenship should be determined by the flag under which someone is born, said Charles Alailima, one of the attorneys representing the group. "The plaintiffs here should not have to ask to be United States citizens."
A U.S. passport issued to those born in American Samoa notes the bearer is a national and not a citizen.
To be eligible to apply for naturalization, those born in American Samoa must leave the territory and live in a state for at least three months. Many say the hassle and expense of the naturalization process prevents them from pursuing citizenship.
American Samoa's nonvoting delegate in Congress introduced a bill earlier this year to make it easier for those living in the territory to become U.S. citizens. Delegate Eni Faleomavaega's bill, which is pending, would allow applying for naturalization directly from American Samoa.
"Among other things, many federal, state and municipal laws require that a person be a U.S. citizen in order to enjoy certain civil, political and economic liberties, such as the right to vote, serve on a jury, bear arms and hold certain forms of public sector employment," the lawsuit argues.
According to the complaint, Tuaua wanted to pursue a law enforcement career in California, but couldn't because of his status as a U.S. national. Tuaua 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.
"Recognition by the United States that all persons born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens would significantly advance the Samoan Federation's efforts to increase the political voice of the Samoan community," said the Carson, Calif., nonprofit group, also named as a plaintiff, of allowing American Samoa-born nationals living in the United States a chance to vote for president.