28 July 2015

American Samoa - U.S. citizenship court decision highlights U.S. perspective on its dependency governance of territories

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A three-judge panel with the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington recently ruled that people born in American Samoa do not automatically become citizens of the United States. According to a Dependency Studies Expert, "this unanimous ruling once again confirms the non self-governing nature of the U.S. - administered dependencies, and successfully counters the illusion that these territories exercise real self-government."


Excerpts from the United States District Court of Appeals ruling on the unilateral extension of U.S. citizenship to American Samoans 

"Although it possesses significant institutions of local self-government American Samoa is classified as a 'non self-governing territory' by the United Nations General Assembly." 


"...the (U.S.) Citizenship Clause is textually ambiguous as to whether (the phrase) 'in the United States' encompasses America's unincorporated territories(,) and we hold it 'impractible and anomalous' to impose citizenship by judicial fiat - where doing so requires to override the democratic prerogatives of the American Samoan people themselves. The judgment of the district court is afffirmed; the Citizenship Clause does not extend birthright citizenship (U.S.) citizenship to those born in American Samoa."


"Even if 'United States' is than 'among the several States,' it remains ambiguous whether territories situated like American Samoa are 'within' the United States for purposes of the (U.S. Citizenship) Clause."

"...we are sceptical the framers (of the U.S. Constitution) plainly intended to extend birthright citizenship to distinct, significantly self-governing (?) political territories within the United States sphere of sovereignty - even where, as is the case with American Samoa, ultimate governance remains with the United States Government." (emphasis added)


Analysis of the (U.S.) Citizenship Clause's application of American Samoa would be incomplete absent invocation of the sometimes contentious Insular Cases, where the (U.S.) Supreme Court addressed whether the Constitution, by its own force, applies in any territory that is not a (U.S.) State."


“The doctrine of ‘territorial incorporation’ announced in the Insular Cases distinguishes between incorporated territories, which are intended for (U.S.) statehood from the time of acquisition and in which the entire (U.S.) Constitution applies ex proprio vigore, and unincorporated territories [such as American Samoa], which are not intended for (U.S.) statehood and in which only [certain] fundamental (U.S.) constitutional rights apply by their own force..."

"Although some aspects of the Insular Cases’ analysis may now be deemed politically incorrect, the framework remains both applicable and of pragmatic use in assessing the applicability of rights to unincorporated territories." (emphasis added).

" While 'fundamental limitations in favor of personal rights' remain guaranteed to persons born in the unincorporated territories, the insular framework recognizes the difficulties that frequently inure when “determin[ing] [whether a] particular provision of the Constitution is applicable,' absent inquiry into the impractical or anomalous. [T]he determination of what particular provision of the Constitution is applicable, generally speaking, in all cases, involves an inquiry into the situation of the territory and its relations to the United States.)"


This Court, like the lower court, “is [also] mindful of the years of past practice in which territorial citizenship has been treated as a statutory, and not a constitutional right.”


“Whatever may be finally decided by the American people as to the status of these islands and their inhabitants . . . they are entitled under the principles of the Constitution to be protected in life, liberty, and property . . . even [if they are] not possessed of the political rights of citizens of the United States.”) (emphasis added)


"Despite American Samoa’s lengthy relationship with the United States, the American Samoan people have not formed a collective consensus in favor of United States citizenship. In part this reluctance stems from unique kinship practices and social structures inherent to the traditional Samoan way of life, including those related to the Samoan system of communal land ownership..."

"Representatives of the American Samoan people have long expressed concern that the extension of United States citizenship to the territory could potentially undermine these aspects of the Samoan way of life. For example (former) Congressman Faleomavaega and the American Samoan Government posit the extension of citizenship could result in greater scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, imperiling American Samoa’s traditional, racially (?) - based land alienation rules. Appellants contest the probable danger citizenship poses to American Samoa’s customs and cultural mores."


"The resolution of this dispute would likely require delving into the particulars of American Samoa’s present legal and cultural structures to an extent ill-suited to the limited factual record before us.  ('The importance of the constitutional right at stake makes it essential that a decision in this case rest on a solid understanding of the present legal and cultural development of American Samoa. That understanding cannot be based on unsubstantiated opinion; it must be based on facts.'). 
We need not rest on such issues or otherwise speculate on the relative merits of the American Samoan Government’s Equal Protection concerns. The imposition of citizenship on the American Samoan territory is impractical and anomalous at a more fundamental level." (emphasis added)

Full U.S. Court of Appeals asked to review decision in citizenship case


Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the U.S. citizenship lawsuit have petitioned the full U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. to review a decision made last month by the three-judge panel — of the same appeals court — which ruled that the constitutional citizenship birth on U.S. soil does not apply to those born in American Samoa.

Plaintiffs in the case, led by local resident Leneuoti Tuaua, are five American Samoans and the Los Angeles based non profit group the Samoan Federation of America. Their petition for a hearing en banc (or full court) was filed Monday, which was the deadline to file such a request after the three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s decision.
In their petition, attorneys for the plaintiffs maintain that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause entitles individuals born in American Samoa to citizenship by virtue of their birth “in the United States.”
However, they argue that the three-member panel stopped short of decisively interpreting the Clause’s meaning, instead declining to apply the Clause to American Samoa in deference to the views of elected officials from American Samoa.