American Samoans to Gain U.S. Citizenship, Federal Court Rules

People born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean, will be granted citizenship, a federal court ruled on Thursday.

Until now, American Samoans were deemed "non-citizen nationals," and therefore denied the right to vote, run for office, work in certain jobs, sponsor family members for immigration, get federal student aid and other rights reserved for U.S. citizens.

American Samoa was the last territory to win citizenship after a hard-fought legal battle spanning decades, according to the court decision, joining Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rainmaker Mountain, American Samoa
One of the seven National Natural Landmarks located on opposite side of Pago Pago Harbor. A great mass of volcanic rocks extruded as molten magma during major episodes of volcanic activity, which created the island Tutuila. National Park Service

John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli, who were born in the territory but currently live in Utah, sued the federal government in March of last year on the grounds that they're owed citizenship status under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

The Constitution intentionally left out a definition of "citizen," according to court documents. While the president was explicitly required to be a "natural born citizen," the framers otherwise wanted implicit assumptions to guide who was granted citizenship and who wasn't.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment finally defined citizens as people "born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof." But laws enacted since the mid-20th century have explicitly defined American Samoans as "nationals," not citizens.

Hence the crux of the court case was rather a simple one on its face: whether American Samoa is "in the United States" for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups of Utah says yes, in part because people in the territory are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States: its taxes, laws, processes and the rights that affords them.

In an interview last year with the Associated Press, Fitisemanu said being treated as un-American was "kind of embarrassing." He'd been rejected from certain jobs due to a lack of citizenship and often avoided political conversations around elections because he couldn't vote.

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 U.S. soil, but you're not recognized as a U.S. citizen."

Prior to this 69-page ruling, American Samoans were granted citizenship if at least one of their parents were citizens. Otherwise, it cost $725 just to start an application, the AP reported last year.