American Samoans seeking U.S. citizenship are taking stock after the U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear their case to be recognized as U.S. citizens at birth.
People in other U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, are born U.S. citizens. But those born in American Samoa, also a territory, are only recognized as U.S. “nationals.”
"We are the only people in the territories who are still called U.S. nationals," said High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson, among the plaintiffs in the case. "All the other territories are citizens."
As U.S. nationals, American Samoans cannot vote in U.S. elections or serve on a jury, among other limitations. If they wish to be U.S. citizens, the Samoans have to be naturalized.
Several U.S. military veterans are also among the plaintiffs in the case, according to Faletogo. Such American Samoans should have the right to vote, he said.
"We fought and died in the wars to protect a nation that doesn't fully accept us as U.S. citizens," he said.
The plaintiffs were represented by Neil Weare, a civil rights attorney who directs the We the People Project in Washington, D.C. He said his clients are reviewing their legal options.
“The court has denied review in this particular case. But that leaves the question unresolved as a legal matter. So there is certainly the possibility that the legal issues could be raised in a different case,” Weare said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs last year.
The Obama administration, which opposed citizenship for the American Samoans, argued that only Congress can grant citizenship rights.
But Weare said seeking legislation to allow citizenship for American Samoans poses challenges, since what Congress gives, it can also take away.
The Samoan government, like the administration, opposed the citizenship effort, arguing American Samoa elects its own representatives and has a distinct national culture.
"My island nation of American Samoa is against our effort here, because of their belief that it is going to interfere with their land and titles," Faletogo said. "We're trying to tell them that has nothing to do with the issue here."