American Samoa Residents Are Suing to Become United States Citizens

American Samoa residents living in Utah have filed a lawsuit for citizenship, a right they say they're guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

American Samoans are free to pursue U.S. citizenship, but Tuesday's lawsuit argues that they shouldn't be subject to the lengthy—and expensive—legal process of naturalization, being that they were born in a U.S. territory.

"If someone has a birth certificate showing they were born on U.S. soil, they shouldn’t have to jump through any more hoops to be recognized as a U.S. citizen," Neil Weare, an attorney litigating the suit, told the Associated Press. Plus, he pointed out, "there's no guarantee of success" for American Samoans who opt to pursue citizenship through the $725 application process, which can become costlier if they seek the help of lawyers.

John Fitisemanu, the suit's lead plaintiff, says the costs associated with naturalization are simply not feasible for him, having gone through a divorce and endured other financial hardships. As a result, he's been turned down for jobs requiring him to be a U.S. citizen—which, it's worth noting, is against the law, unless U.S. citizenship is in fact required by law for that particular job. Like other non-U.S. citizens, he can't vote, run for office or perform jury duty. He carries a special U.S. passport that states: "This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

Fitisemanu is required, however, to pay taxes just like any other citizen or resident of the U.S.

"It’s kind of like an office joke — 'Hey! John is not a citizen, he’s an alien!'" Fitisemanu said. "I know they’re joking, but it still hurts."

American-Samoa-passport American Samoans are issued special passports which state: "This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.” citizen or resident of the U.S." Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

This is the second time Weare, the suit's lead attorney, has brought such a case. The first time, in 2016, his case for American Samoan citizenship was rejected in a D.C. court, which ruled that American Samoans didn't have a claim to birthright citizenship under the Constitution. The Supreme Court rejected Weare's appeal of the decision.

The American Samoan government itself considers the prospect of U.S. citizenship a somewhat slippery slope, arguing in 2014 that Samoans could risk jeopardizing their culture if they gave themselves over to "scrutiny under the 14th Amendment." 

But for Samoans like Fitisemanu, citizenship would serve as the validation he's long been seeking as a resident of the U.S.

"It feels like a slap in your face that you’re born on U.S. soil, but you’re not recognized as a U.S. citizen," he said. "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 U.S. citizen.”

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