PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) — A group of five people have filed a federal lawsuit arguing they should be U.S. citizens by virtue of being born in American Samoa, the only U.S. territory that doesn't grant that birthright.
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.
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 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.
Tuaua wanted to pursue a law enforcement career in California but couldn't because of his status as a U.S. national, according to the complaint. He 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.
Statutes have been passed in other territories defining them as part of the United States and entitling people born there to U.S. citizenship. But not everyone in American Samoa wants that, explained Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Alaska who often handles cases involving American Samoa nationals.
Being a citizen at birth would mean all of the U.S. Constitution applies, which would prevent certain communal land ownership rules unique to American Samoa, such as favoring those with Samoan blood, Stock said.
"This has been a big debate in American Samoa for a long time," she said.
Home to 56,000 people, American Samoa is also a place that holds tight to its culture and heritage.
The territory's nonvoting delegate in Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, said Thursday he doesn't think citizenship should be forced on those born in American Samoa.
"The future of our territory is being threatened by outside forces, and we must unite in our opposition to this lawsuit," he said. "I firmly believe the future of American Samoa should be decided by the people living in the territory, not by a court 7,000 miles away," he said.
For those who do want citizenship, he introduced a bill earlier this year to make it easier for those living in the territory to do so. The bill, which is pending, would allow applying for naturalization directly from American Samoa.
Currently, people born in American Samoa must leave the territory and live in a state for at least three months to apply for naturalization. Many say the hassle and expense of the process prevents them from pursuing citizenship.
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.
"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.
"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," by allowing them to vote for president, said the Carson, Calif., nonprofit group, which is also named as a plaintiff.