20 March 2015

American Samoan Delegate to Congress says political status issues should be decided by the people, not by the U.S. courts

Link: Pacific Islands Report
Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Am. Congresswoman: Citizenship Issue Should Be Decided By Territory; Federal Courts should not be involved in ‘political status question’

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, March 16, 2015) – Congresswoman Aumua Amata says the citizenship lawsuit appeal pending in the federal appeals court in Washington D.C. is a "political status question" for the people of American Samoa to decide on, and not for a federal court thousands of miles away in the nation’s capital.

She also says that she is looking at federal legislation to amend federal law, which would simplify the process for U.S. Nationals seeking to obtain U.S. Citizenship.

Aumua’s comments were made during her first town hall meeting last Thursday with local residents. She was responding to questions raised by military veteran Morgan Suapilimai, who claimed that there are a lot of veterans who are supportive of automatic U.S. citizenship for persons born in American Samoa.

Oral arguments were made last month before a panel of three judges at the federal appeals court, on the citizenship lawsuit filed by eight U.S. nationals led by local resident Leneuoti Tuaua. The plaintiffs also include the Los Angeles-based Samoan Federation of America, a non-profit organization.

In her response to Suapilimai’s question, Amata explained that the citizenship lawsuit is a question on whether U.S. Nationals— who are persons born in American Samoa—have a Constitutional birthright to be automatic U.S. citizens— or is this a Congressional process.

She said that last year, she travelled to 13 different military installations across the county, and the citizenship question came up many times.

"What I feel, is that U.S. Nationals here on island have a different priority than the U.S. Nationals in the States" when it comes to the U.S. citizenship issue, she said, adding that U.S. nationals in the States are involved in the communities where they live and settle, and want to become U.S. citizens.

On the other hand, U.S. nationals in the territory "deal with faasamoa and everything else and they’re a little afraid of the U.S. citizen status, because they feel that it might jeopardize our faaaganu’u [our faasamoa]," she said.

"What I would propose to do— and all of these proposals will have to be cleared by our people and leaders—is amend the [federal] Immigration and Nationality Act, to allow the simplification of the procedure to become a U.S. citizen," she said, adding that only Congress can make this necessary change in the procedure.

She went on to explain that a U.S. national is a non U.S. citizen who owes permanent allegiance to the United States, and a U.S. citizen is also an individual who owes permanent allegiance to the United States.

"To me they are the same, except one has a different label from the other… it was put there in 1900 and it was a way for the United States... to somehow help us hang on to our culture, our language and our customs," she said.

As far as the lawsuit in federal court, Aumua said, "that is a political status question and we must not allow that political status question to be solved in court" thousands of miles away in Washington D.C.

"This is a question for our people to decide," she said, adding that she doesn’t agree to having a federal court decide the citizenship issue.

Pulu Ae Ae Jr., the Congresswoman’s local District Office director, reminded the audience that American Samoa remains an unorganized and unincorporated territory of the U.S. and that he disagrees with automatic citizenship for U.S. nationals.

He also shared his own views on this matter, saying that American Samoa will be faced with many problems if automatic citizenship is granted to persons born in the territory, and among those problems, will be the federal government "taking our land and imposing federal taxes on us just like what’s been done to other states."

Pulu went on to say that he believes that some U.S. nationals want automatic citizenship to avoid having to pay the high cost of obtaining U.S. citizenship.


Last week, U.S. Assistant Attorney Wynne P. Kelly filed a one-paragraph letter with the clerk of the Court of Appeals to address any misimpression that may have been left after oral arguments on Feb. 9 that the federal government would concede that it could not prevail in a hypothetical case where the American Samoan government supported the plaintiffs’ position.

Kelly said the federal government’s "position, as their brief reflects, has been, and continues to be, that its position is fully consistent with federal law, and thus the American Samoan government’s support of the Federal [government’s]position is not dispositive for the Government to prevail on the issue before the Court."

The federal government’s letter was published by an off-island online group, and some local and off island American Samoans had interpreted the letter as indicating that ASG was changing its stand and heading toward supporting the plaintiffs.

Responding to Samoa News request for comments and reaction on the federal government’s letter, Michael F. Williams— attorney for ASG and for Congresswoman Aumua in the appeal—said the letter is to clarify that the federal government’s position in the case would not change if ASG or the Congresswoman changed their views on the case.

Additionally, the letter was intended to clear up confusion that might have resulted from the United States’ response to a question raised at the oral argument.

"To be sure, the letter is addressing a hypothetical situation because the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Amata continue to believe that the status of American Samoans is a question for the American Samoan people to decide, not a question for courts in Washington, D.C.," he stressed.

The citizenship lawsuit, with a decision due out later this year, picked up national attention last week on John Oliver’s HBO program "Last Week Tonight", in which the issue of U.S. territories being unable to vote for the U.S. President— and the fact that American Samoans are not U.S. citizens— was discussed on national television.

Oliver said people from Guam still get a better deal than those from American Samoa—the only U.S. territory where citizenship is not inherited at birth.

"The American part of American Samoa is really a title that doesn't mean anything," said Oliver, "like 'People's Choice Award nominee' or 'social media expert.'"