A federal court in Utah ruled Thursday that people born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens under the Constitution.
American Samoa, a group of islands in the Pacific with a population of about 55,000, is a U.S. territory, and American Samoans are currently considered “non-citizen nationals” of the U.S. This means that in the 50 states, they cannot vote or run for office, can’t serve on juries, and are not eligible for certain government jobs.
Last year, three people born in American Samoa but living in Utah sued the U.S. government, saying their current status made them “second-class Americans” and asking that all people born in American Samoa be granted birthright citizenship, with new passports and full rights.
American Samoa is the only overseas U.S. territory where people are not granted birthright citizenship. The federal government has already granted citizenship by statute to the people of other territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.
In Thursday’s U.S. District Court ruling, Judge Clark Waddoups declared that people born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.
The judge also deemed unconstitutional the section of U.S. code that says a person born “in an outlying possession of the United States” is a “national” and not a citizen at birth. He ordered the government to issue new passports and full rights to American Samoans.
“It’s an overwhelming victory but it’s the first step in what will likely be several more steps,” Neil Weare, attorney for the plaintiffs, told CNN.
In a similar case in 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against five American Samoan plaintiffs, saying the 14th Amendment did not automatically apply to such territories. The Supreme Court did not take up the case.
As these cases have been fought in recent years, some American Samoans have expressed concern that granting U.S. citizenship could lead to further erosion of the islanders’ way of life and indigenous cultural traditions, reported NPR.
In this most recent case, the government of American Samoa joined the U.S. government in opposing the plaintiffs, arguing that the U.S. government should not impose citizenship on American Somoa “against its will,” saying it was a question for its people and elected officials to decide.
It remains to be seen if the U.S. government will appeal this decision, potentially sending the case to the Supreme Court.
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