American Samoans sue for citizenship

John Fitisemanu, and others who were born in American Samoa, are asking the court in Salt Lake City for citizenship under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which grants citizenship at birth to anyone born in the United States.

Katrina Keil Youd/Equally American/AP/File
John Fitisemanu, an American Samoan and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the United States seeking full US citizenship, poses for a photo in Salt Lake City. A lawsuit filed March 27, 2018, in federal court in Utah seeks to grant US citizenship status to American Samoans.

John Fitisemanu, who works for a lab company in Utah, has paid United States taxes and been subject to American laws his whole life. But the father and husband isn't considered a US citizen by the federal government because he was born in American Samoa, a US territory and the only place in the country without automatic claim to citizenship. Now, he's suing to be recognized as an American.

Mr. Fitisemanu is the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of American Samoans in Utah to be treated as US citizens under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The Associated Press obtained the documents before the case was filed.

American Samoa, a US territory since 1900, is a cluster of islands 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii perpetually stuck in a legal loophole. People born in the territory are labeled US nationals. Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the US, apply for certain government jobs, or serve on a jury – despite paying taxes to Uncle Sam. They're even issued special US passports that say: "This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen."

With colleagues, "it's kind of like an office joke – 'Hey! John is not a citizen, he's an alien!' I know they're joking, but it still hurts," Fitisemanu told the AP. "It feels like a slap in your face, that you're born on US soil, but you're not recognized as a US citizen."

He's been rejected for jobs that list US citizenship as a requirement. Prospective employers "need me to show them proof that I am a US citizen, which I am not." Around elections, "I sit quietly at my cubicle, and don't say a word, because I know I can't vote," he said. "It's kind of embarrassing."

Rosavita Tuli, another plaintiff in the case, has had to obtain special permits and pay fees that wouldn't apply to US citizens when visiting her aging parents outside American Samoa, according to court documents.

Although American Samoans can pursue naturalized citizenship, the lawsuit says it is a "lengthy, costly, and burdensome" process.

The cost to apply is $725, and legal fees pile up if applicants hire an attorney to help navigate the process. For Fitisemanu, a previous divorce and other financial burdens have prevented him from going that route.

Also, "there's no guarantee of success," said Neil Weare, the attorney leading the suit, and president of non-profit Equally American. "If someone has a birth certificate showing they were born on US soil, they shouldn't have to jump through any more hoops to be recognized as a US citizen."

Those born in the territory, however, can claim citizenship at birth if one of their parents is a US citizen. The same generally holds true for children born abroad to Americans.

This is Mr. Weare's second attempt on the issue. A previous case he led stalled in 2016 when the Supreme Court declined to reconsider a ruling from a lower court in D.C., which found the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship didn't apply to American Samoa, and referred back to controversial colonial era decisions from the early 20th century after the US acquired a spate of territories in the Spanish American War.

Known as the "Insular Cases," the Supreme Court distinguished between "incorporated" and "unincorporated" territories. The former, such as Arizona and New Mexico, mostly settled by white people, were thought destined to be a permanent part of the US

The latter, such as American Samoa, weren't considered candidates for statehood, whose inhabitants were described as "alien races" and "uncivilized," and thus weren't granted full constitutional rights.

Over the years, Congress has decided on a per territory basis to allow those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands to claim citizenship by birth. American Samoa's population of about 55,000, however, has continued to fall to the wayside.

"This is the holding pattern we've been in now for over a century," said Sam Erman, an expert in constitutional law and a professor at the University of Southern California. Still, Mr. Erman and many legal scholars agree that "American Samoans are clearly citizens under the 14th Amendment."

This lawsuit places a question mark over whether the millions that lived in the Philippines while the country was a US territory for five decades until 1946 would also be able to seek US citizenship, said Erman, who plans to file a legal brief on the current lawsuit.

The local American Samoan government has before taken a nuanced view over the issue, given concern about how aspects of Samoan life and culture "would be jeopardized if subjected to scrutiny under the 14th Amendment," according to court documents filed in 2014 by lawyers representing the government. American Samoa Governor Lolo Moliga didn't respond to a request for comment.

The US State Department, named as the defendants on the lawsuit, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Utah has a major Samoan population. If the case there is decided favorably, that would create a "circuit split" – a conflicting ruling to what was previously decided in another court, which could add pressure to the Supreme Court to review.

Until then, Fitisemanu is standing firm: "People will say what they want to say, and I'm going to believe in what I want to believe, and I believe that I should be a US citizen."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to American Samoans sue for citizenship
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today