Jun 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Federal court rules birthright citizenship does not apply to American Samoa

Children on a beach in American Samoa in 1965.

Children on a beach in American Samoa in 1965. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A three-judge panel for the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday that the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause does not apply to the U.S. territory of American Samoa, reversing a lower-court ruling.

Why it matters: American Samoa, which was annexed by the U.S. in the early 1900s and is home to more than 50,000 people, is one of the only places in the country where birthright citizenship does not apply. Many people in the territory hope it remains that way, while others desire automatic citizenship.

Between the lines: Because birthright citizenship has never applied to the five islands and two coastal atolls that comprise American Samoa, people born there do not automatically have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections and cannot run for federal office, unless one of their parents is a citizen.

  • Currently, American Samoans are considered "nationals" and must go through the naturalization process. However, a group American Samoans have sued the federal government in an attempt to get the Citizenship Clause to apply to the territory.
  • Many Samoans do not want automatic citizenship because they consider themselves more Samoan than American and fear it will threaten their culture and how they manage property communally among families, according to AP.

State of play: Senior Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero and Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich ruled in favor of the federal government, writing in the majority that Congress and not the courts must determine the citizenship status of people living in unincorporated territorial lands.

  • It reverses the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah's 2020 ruling on behalf of three American Samoans that the Citizenship Clause does apply to those born in the territory.
  • The government of American Samoa intervened in the case and asked the Tenth Circuit to reserve the ruling in Utah over concerns that it could damage Samoan culture the territory's autonomy.

What they're saying: "We conclude that neither constitutional text nor Supreme Court precedent demands the district court’s interpretation of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," Lucero wrote.

  • "We instead recognize that Congress plays the preeminent role in the determination of citizenship in unincorporated territorial lands, and that the courts play but a subordinate role in the process."
  • Lucero wrote he was sensitive to "the preference against citizenship expressed by the American Samoan people through their elected representatives" and added that "a people’s incorporation into the citizenry of another nation ought to be done with their consent or not done at all."

The other side: Circuit Judge Robert Bacharach disagreed, arguing the plaintiffs and all others born in the territory are citizens because American Samoa is a part of the U.S. and the Fourteenth Amendment applies to all parts of the country.

  • “From colonial days, Americans understood that citizenship extended to everyone within the sovereign’s dominion. So those in territories like American Samoa enjoy birthright citizenship, just like anyone else born in our country. The plaintiffs are thus U.S. citizens," Bacharach wrote.

What to watch: Rep. Aumua Amata (R-AS), a non-voting representative in Congress, wrote on Twitter in response to the ruling: "Congress should now act to pass my bill, H.R. 1941, so that U.S. Nationals who CHOOSE citizenship can quickly, sensibly and affordably make that change. Individuals should not have roadblocks to their self-determination if they choose citizenship."

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