American Samoans Challenge Denial of U.S. Citizenship

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on February 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Six American Samoans are getting a chance to challenge a federal law in the D.C. Circuit that labels them as U.S. nationals, but not citizens.

The D.C. District Court granted the government's motion to dismiss, but the D.C. Circuit has decided to give the American Samoans a chance to argue their case, according to the Pacific News Center.

According to the original opinion, the State Department classifies the country as an "unincorporated territory."

Nationals, But Not Citizens

Although people born in American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, they don't become automatic citizens even if they're born in a U.S. territory. A brief history: American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900, after a deed of cession by the local chiefs. The U.S. Navy oversaw the territory until 1951 when it was transferred to the Department of Interior. American Samoa has its own independent constitution and elections, according to the DOI.

Even though American Samoa is overseen by the DOI, the people born there are U.S. nationals. Nationals are individuals who have sole allegiance to the states, but can't vote in any elections in the United States or hold elected office. However, nationals must go through the same naturalization process as foreigners do in order to become an U.S. citizen.

Lower Court Ruling

In the initial lawsuit of Tuaua v. U.S., the plaintiffs argued that the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause (also known as sentence one of Section One) doesn't allow the government to deny them automatic citizenship because American Samoa is a U.S. territory that's overseen by the Department of Interior.

However, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon disagreed and granted the government's motion to dismiss. He opined in Tuaua that federal court precedent has held that unincorporated territories aren't included within the citizenship clause. Plus, Congress's legislative history shows that it never intended to bestow citizenship status upon those born in American Samoa, so this wasn't the time to make changes to the law.

It'll be interesting to see how the D.C. Circuit handles the case and if American Samoans will see changes to their citizenship statuses.

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