American Samoa: Second-Class Status

American Samoa: Second-Class Status

Matthew Severin, December 2016

American Samoa is one of five permanently inhabited unincorporated territories of the United States. The other four include Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands. People who live in United States unincorporated territories receive specific fundamental rights, however, they do not receive many rights of the U.S. Constitution despite living on United States land. For example, anyone born in an unincorporated territory of the United States does not have the right to vote. American Samoa is different from the other four unincorporated territories in one key regard; people born there do not receive United States citizenship. This fact has many harmful effects to American Samoan’s that impact their lives and burden them with disadvantages that no one else from any other United States State or territory has to face in their lives.

In 1878, the United States signed a treaty to create a naval station in the harbor of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, and in 1899, the United States and Germany split the island into their own spheres of influence; Germany controlled the western islands while the United States obtained the eastern islands [1]. During this time period, the United States was enlarging its boundaries and taking control of different islands to expand its sphere of influence. There was nothing in the U.S. Constitution about what to do with overseas territories, however, and so the United States had to decide on what to do with them. In 1951, the United States decided to give the U.S. Department of the Interior control over American Samoa and appointed a governor to administer the area. In 1977, a Samoan by the name of Peter Coleman became the territory’s first elected governor after the Samoans sought to control their country’s affairs [2]. All members of American Samoa’s government have since been elected by the people [3]. Although this seems like a step in the right direction, American Samoans are still negatively affected from the continuous denial of United States citizenship.

Although all of the unincorporated territories of the United States have arguments against their inability to exercise certain rights under the Constitution, American Samoa has perhaps the most compelling argument of all. Being the only territory that doesn’t receive birthright citizenship, American Samoans argue that the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment should apply to them. The 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” [4]. The denial of birthright citizenship to American Samoans is very controversial and confusing. Many people, American Samoans included, don’t understand why their denial of the 14th Amendment is even disputable. If American Samoa is part of the United States, why doesn’t it receive birthright citizenship like every other part of the United States, offshore territories included? And furthermore, why do all of the other four unincorporated territories of the United States receive birthright citizenship and not American Samoa? The U.S. government decided that those born in American Samoa will become a “national”, because they are not foreigners, but nor are they citizens [5]. This is how American Samoans become burdened with disadvantages that negatively impact their ability to essentially live in the United States, mainland or American Samoa. Although American Samoans have the right to travel to the mainland, they face significant discrimination there due to their status as “nationals”. Due to their deprivation of citizenship, the “nationals” are disadvantaged in sponsoring family members for immigration, ineligible for many Civil Service jobs, and denied the right to vote [6]. These disadvantages are just a few examples of how the lives of American Samoans are impacted by their second-class status.

Due to the discrimination faced, five American Samoans as well as the Samoan Federation of America decided to sue the federal government [7]. The grounds for the case, in the words of Equal Rights Now; “The Citizenship Clause of the United States constitution provides that ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.’ Federal laws and policies that deny citizenship to people born in American Samoa violate this Clause and are unconstitutional” [8]. One of the American Samoans named Leneuoti Tuaua, whose last name titled the supreme court case Tuaua V. United States (2015), was the former Marshal for the High Court of American Samoa [9]. Earlier in his life he moved to California and sought to become a police officer there. His desire was declined as he was not a citizen of the United States, but merely a “national”. This is a perfect example of the disadvantages and discrimination American Samoan “nationals” face that no other United States territory shares.

In the words of Leneuoti Tuaua; “I am not a lawyer. But I do know that it is wrong that the United States is denying American Samoans U.S. citizenship at the same time our sons and daughters are risking their lives to defend the American flag overseas. I believe federal laws that deny American Samoans citizenship should be challenged because I want my children to have the same world of opportunities available to them that are available to any other child born in any other part of the United States. So long as the American flag flies over American Samoa, the United States should not be able to deny us citizenship” [10]. Tuaua brings up many good points in this passage, particularly the fact that American Samoan nationals are denied the opportunities that everyone else in the United States, mainland and offshore, are privileged with. The United States has been called both the land of the free and of opportunity. But American Samoa is a perfect example to disprove both these claims. The Nationals are not born free to exercise their rights as American citizens and they are not privileged with opportunities that people born anywhere else in the United States are presented with.

Although the five American Samoans as well as the Samoan Federation of America brought up a very good argument that many would think indisputable, the Supreme Court denied their appeal, making this topic further controversial. Interestingly, the Obama Administration reasoned that Congress has power to exclude Americans born in unincorporated territories from the 14th Amendment based on the Insular Cases Doctrine. However, the Supreme Court noted in Boumediene V. Bush that; “The Constitution grants Congress and the President the power to acquire, dispose of, and govern territory, not the power to decide when and where its terms apply” [11]. This statement from the Supreme Court completely contradicts their decision to deny the appeal made by the five American Samoans and further demonstrates how controversial and unfair their status as “nationals” is.

To further exhibit the ambiguity of the case ruling, Andrew Petrey, a writer for the Florida Journal of International Law, analyzes the court’s decision with the following quote; “Throughout the tortured history of cases exploring the applicability of the U.S. Constitution to unincorporated territories, a bright-line rule has never formed. The main rule that has emerged is that certain fundamental rights apply to the territories. Unfortunately, little guidance has been given regarding which rights are fundamental. To date, the courts have determined that inhabitants of unincorporated territories are entitled to Due Process and the writ of habeas corpus. No case has specifically defined what all of the fundamental rights are. The courts have been hesitant to expand the applicability of the U.S. Constitution to unincorporated territories” [12]. The fact that American Samoans can’t even receive a solid reasoning behind the court’s decision to deny the appeal furthers their second-class status as “nationals”. The government refuses to give them a valid reason as to why they are denying them many opportunities, resulting in their innate and inevitable disadvantages.

The Supreme Court’s decision has crushed hope for American Samoans and has been met with criticisms from both United States citizens and nationals alike. People from American Samoa are born into a clearly second-class status wrought with disadvantages and discrimination that it is almost comparable to African Americans before the 14th Amendment granted them citizenship. American Samoans who have moved to the mainland United States feel much more of the separation between United States citizens and nationals, particularly in educational and economic opportunities [13]. Despite the fact that American Samoans already speak English, worship the American flag, and fight in wars for the United States, American Samoan nationals must become “naturalized” just to become citizens. This process costs $700, requires a history exam, and it can take a year or more to process [14]. This is something everyone born anywhere else in the United States doesn’t have to deal with and simply takes for granted. Furthermore, American Samoan nationals are deprived of many job opportunities. Some of these include serving as firefighters, police officers, officers in the United States military, and other well-paying state jobs [15]. These are jobs that are available to anyone else born in the United States; opportunities that everyone else takes for granted. Additionally, many State laws actually treat American Samoan nationals worse than they treat foreign nationals who have legal permanent residence. Foreign nationals reap more rights and opportunities than American Samoans receive as nationals of the United States. There is no justification for these acts of injustice that plague American Samoans with disadvantages and further their unofficial status as second-class Americans.

As one of the five unincorporated territories, American Samoa is naturally already at a disadvantage. Unincorporated territories do not receive all rights under the United States Constitution. However, American Samoa is the only territory that doesn’t receive birthright citizenship, which skews them into a discriminatory second-class status filled with disadvantages that hinder their ability to live in the United States democracy. Furthermore, the United States has continuously denied American Samoan desires to gain birthright citizenship without ever stating a direct and reasonable explanation. Needless to say, the treatment of American Samoans is unjust, unconstitutional, and needs to change in order for freedom to still be a fundamental aspect of American society.

[1] American Samoa. 2016. History of American Samoa.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ponsa, Christina Duffy. 2016. “Are American Samoans American?” The New York Times (Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr).
[5] Ibid..
[6] Ibid.
[7] North, David. 2015. American Samoa’s Government: “Don’t Let Our People Be U.S. Citizens”. February 16.
[8] Equal Rights Now. 2016. About Tuaua V. United States.
[9] Equal Rights Now. 2016. Meet the Plaintiffs.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Equal Rights Now. 2016. About Tuaua V. United States.
[12] Petrey, Andrew. 2013. “Constitutional Confines: Determining the Applicability of the Citizenship Clause to American Samoa Tuaua v. United States.” Florida Journal of International Law (Florida Journal of International Law) 25 (3): 483-490.
[13] Equal Rights Now. 2016. What are the consequences of American Samoans being denied recognition as citizens?
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.

Further Reading
Cohen, David. 2014. “Jenner, David Cohen Amicus Brief.” Scribd

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