U.S. Court of Appeals rules against citizenship for those from American Samoa

The district court in Utah previously ruled in favor of automatic citizenship.

(David Briscoe | The Associated Press) This July 2002 file photo shows a sailing ship in the harbor at Pago Pago, American Samoa. Many residents of American Samoa were concerned that a federal judge's recent ruling in Utah, saying those born in the U.S. territory should be recognized as U.S. citizens, would threaten "fa'a Samoa," the Samoan way of life. On Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the decision was reversed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

A ruling by a Utah judge in favor of American Samoans automatically becoming citizens was reversed on Tuesday by a higher court in Denver. The court said it isn’t clear a majority of American Samoans want to be citizens, and it isn’t fair to foist citizenship upon them.

American Samoans living in Utah filed a lawsuit in 2018 saying that they should be given American citizenship under the 14th Amendment, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Currently, people born in American Samoa are considered American nationals, but are not allowed to vote, serve on juries or run for federal office or office in other states.

The original complaint by the Utah residents says that the United States “maintain(s) and perpetuate(s) a caste system among those who were born in this Nation and subject to its jurisdiction.” It says the American Samoan Utah residents have not been able to obtain certain jobs because of their citizenship status, and have been prevented from helping elderly parents immigrate to Utah the way a full citizen could.

A federal judge in Utah ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing that they ought to be granted citizenship.

That decision was appealed by both the United States federal government and the American Samoa government. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver agreed with the governments and reversed the Utah court’s decision in a ruling on Tuesday.

In the ruling, the court says that Congress gets to determine who is a citizen and courts play a subordinate role in that process. The ruling also says that American Samoa’s representatives urged the court not to impose citizenship on their people.

Citizenship comes with potential risks to American Samoan culture, according to the ruling. For example, American Samoa has racial restrictions which require land owners to be at least 50% American Samoan. Land ownership is also primarily communal, with 90% of land in American Samoa owned by extended family units called “aiga” rather than individuals.

There is concern these cultural traditions could “run afoul of constitutional protections” if the Utah residents prevail in their citizenship suit, according to the ruling.

“It is evident that the wishes of the territory’s democratically elected representatives, who remind us that their people have not formed a consensus in favor of American citizenship and urge us not to impose citizenship on an unwilling people from a courthouse thousands of miles away, have not been taken into adequate consideration,” reads the ruling. “Such consideration properly falls under the purview of Congress, a point on which we fully agree with the concurrence. These circumstances advise against the extension of birthright citizenship to American Samoa. We reverse.”

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