It’s an event filled with good food, a cricket tournament, and a stage for traditional dances. The eight-day festival celebrates Samoan culture and commemorates the day when a small group of Pacific islands known as American Samoa became a U.S. territory.
But being from a U.S. territory doesn’t grant U.S. citizenship. And this is an issue that has caused ripples throughout the Samoan community. People from the island nation are considered U.S. Nationals, not U.S. citizens. Since American Samoa was incorporated more than a century ago, its people are able to live in the U.S. without a green card or visa – a privilege given to all those born on a U.S. territory.
American Samoans can’t work in most U.S. government agencies, like the Library of Congress or the FBI, and are limited to certain ranks in the military.
The latter is especially concerning because its common for Samoans to join the military straight out of high school.
According to the United States Army Recruiting Command, American Samoa has the number one army recruiting station out of any U.S. state or territory (granted its population is small, yielding a better per capita ratio).
Retired veteran Chief Loa Pele Faletogo is embarrassed that he can’t call himself a citizen. “I am doing everything I’m asked for, I go fight in the military to make sure that the livelihood of the Americans are protected. So I almost get that feeling like I’m being used. That’s not a complete feeling. I’m proud, I’m here, I’m serving, and yet I’m not being recognized,” said Loa.
Now Chief Loa, along with four other American Samoans, are suing the U.S. government for citizenship rights, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment grants American Samoans citizenship through the following clause:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
However, not all Samoans want citizenship. While many Samoans living in the U.S. do, it seems the majority of those living in American Samoa are against it. And it’s not clear whose voice should be louder.
Reverend Misi Tagaloa of the Second Samoan Church in Long Beach thinks people living on the islands should decide on the matter. “They wanted to continue to hold on to their sovereignty, and their culture, and their land, which is something that will be democratized if they become citizens of the United States,” said Tagaloa.
In Samoa, about 90 percent of the land is communally owned by residents who are at least half-Samoan.
Many American Samoans believe that citizenship could end this way of life because it’s illegal in the U.S. to restrict property to a certain race.
University of Southern California assistant law professor Sam Erman, who specializes in citizenship law and contributed to a brief for the case says this fear could be a case of popular thought exaggerating the legal consequences of citizenship. “There is a tendency that citizenship carries with it great consequence. Fewer rights attach to citizenship than people think… Our intuition that citizenship means abandoning a local identity in favor of embracing the U.S. national identity may over simplify things,” said Erman.
In fact, in another U.S. territory, the Northern Mariana Islands, people born in the region have birthright citizenship and it doesn’t conflict with its established rules and regulations concerning land ownership, which works in much the same way as in American Samoa.
However, lawyer Michael Williams, who represents the Samoan government and the Samoan U.S. Delegate in the case says, “Why take the risk?”
“There’s an interesting Samoan saying that says, ‘This tree is not yet ripe, don’t cut it yet.’ This is the sort of thing where if courts make the wrong decisions, it could be irreversible,” said Williams.
He suggests alternatives to citizenship, like lowering the fee for naturalization (it’s more than $600) or eliminating discriminatory practices (like rank restrictions on Samoans in the military and inability to have some government jobs).
“It’s easy for people to say, who doesn’t want equality, who doesn’t want citizenship for everybody. But when you peel back a couple of layers. You can see, boy the American Samoan people really don’t want this,” said Williams. “It’s really a self-determination issue; it’s not an equality issue,” stated Williams.
The case — Tuaua versus the United States — was rejected in June by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But now the plaintiffs have filed for a case review by all 11 members of the Appeals Court.
If the appeal is rejected, the plaintiff’s’ Attorney, Neil Weare, says the case could be taken to the Supreme Court.