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American Samoans seek full citizenship in US Supreme Court appeal

WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) — Claiming they’ve been relegated to second-class status, some American Samoans are asking the Supreme Court to overturn a century-old law that denies them the right to be U.S. citizens at birth.

Unlike children born in other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the children of American Samoans are the only ones in the world born on U.S. soil who do not become automatic U.S. citizens, the high court was told this week.

They are instead deemed as “nationals” who owe their allegiance to the United States, but without the rights as citizens to vote, to serve as officers in the military or hold top government posts.

The Los Angeles-based Samoan Federation of America is asking the justices to take up its claim that the Constitution promises citizenship to all persons born on U.S. soil.

“We’re proud of the United States, and we want to be recognized as part of it,” said federation president Loa Pele Faletogo, 71, a military veteran living in Carson. “I see young men and women who go to war to fight for the United States. They are willing to die for a country that is not fully theirs and for a nation that doesn’t fully accept them as citizens.”

California has about 61,000 American Samoans, according to the 2010 census. That’s more than the 55,000 who live on the South Pacific islands.

Both the U.S. and American Samoan governments are urging the high court to turn away the appeal. The U.S. solicitor general says the matter should be left to Congress.

The American Samoan government has historically opposed birthright citizenship, fearing it might adversely affect its national culture.

The justices were set to consider the appeal Thursday during their private conference.

In 1900, following the U.S. victory over Spain in the Spanish-American war and its seizure of the Philippines, the United States also took possession of part of the Samoa islands, which became American Samoa.

Congress decided its people “shall be nationals, but not citizens, of the United States at birth.” Today Samoans who move to the mainland can become citizens, but only by going through the lengthy naturalization process.

Former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Ted Olson filed the appeal on the behalf of the five Samoan plaintiffs and the Samoan Federation, asking the justices to revisit the so-called “insular cases” of the early 1900s. The decisions extended some but not all constitutional rights to the people of the new territories claimed after the Spanish-American War.

These cases may be “politically incorrect” and reflect outdated “views of race and imperialism,” a U.S. appeals court conceded last year. The outcomes may have rested on the belief that people of the distant islands were not ready to become full Americans. Nonetheless, the three-judge panel rejected the suit brought by the Samoans and said it was up to Congress, not the courts, to change their status.

Olson’s appeal points to the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War. Its opening clause says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States.”

Despite what Olson calls this “unequivocal promise of birthright citizenship,” Congress has “singled out persons born in American Samoa” and “branded them with an inferior, subordinate status that deprives them of the full rights many of them have fought to defend.”

The appeal in Tuana vs. United States is backed by several groups of legal scholars who say the court should use the case to clarify the constitutional standards for citizenship.

Lingering confusion over the subject arose during the Republican primaries earlier this year, when Donald Trump questioned whether Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was eligible to run for president as a “natural born citizen” because he was born in Canada. Most legal scholars sided with Cruz because Congress had extended citizenship at birth to children who were born abroad of American parents.