Judge Declares American Samoans US Citizens; Samoan Government Objects

December 17, 2019 Updated: December 17, 2019
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A federal judge in Utah has ruled that American Samoans are full U.S. citizens and ordered the Trump administration to issue the plaintiffs in the case new passports reflecting their full-citizen status.

“It’s an overwhelming victory, but it’s the first step in what will likely be several more steps,” Neil Weare, lawyer for the plaintiffs and president of the nonprofit Equally American, told CNN.

“It doesn’t feel very good when the federal government says you’re American, but not quite the same as other Americans, just a little bit different. Just being able to say they’re real American citizens, I think that goes a long way, in addition to being able to vote.”

The ruling came Dec. 12 after American Samoans living in Utah filed a lawsuit in 2018 in the case cited as Fitisemanu v. United States of America, asserting that because they are deemed “non-citizen nationals” instead of U.S. citizens, they are denied various rights, such as voting, that U.S. citizens take for granted. Their passports contain an endorsement that reads: “The bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900. Congress adopted laws granting citizenship to those born in other U.S. territories—the Northern Marianas, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico—but not for American Samoa.

The judge in the case, Clark Waddoups of the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, wrote in the 69-page ruling that the court was “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,” the judge stated.

The U.S. government had argued in court that federal courts can’t make citizenship decisions.

It wrote: “Such a novel holding would be contrary to the decisions of every court of appeals to have considered the question, inconsistent with over a century of historical practice by all three branches of the United States government, and conflict with the strong objection of the local government of American Samoa.”

The judge disagreed, writing that “Plaintiffs are American Samoans. They brought this action seeking to realize their rights to citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

“Persons born in American Samoa are citizens of the United States by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” and that a federal law known as 8 U.S.C. § 1408(1) that designates them as non-citizen nationals is unconstitutional on its face.

The judge enjoined the United States from enforcing that law and ordered the government to issue the plaintiffs new passports that don’t contain the endorsement stating the holder is a non-citizen national. According to NPR, the judge temporarily stayed enforcement of his order.

Waddoups didn’t impose limitations on the geographic effect of his order and didn’t qualify his statement that those born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens, so presumably, the ruling applies throughout the country, though more litigation on the issue seems likely. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to take up a similar case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that examined the citizenship status of people born in American Samoa.

It’s unclear if the Trump administration will appeal the ruling.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment as of press time.

Government lawyers for the United States and American Samoa argued in the court case that only Congress can decide questions of citizenship.

American Samoan officials argued that “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],” and would violate “fundamental principles of self-determination.”