Residents of American Samoa sue for US citizenship

Published March 31, 2018, 12:05 PM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola


By The Associated Press 

HONOLULU (AP) – John Fitisemanu, who works for a lab company in Utah, has paid US taxes and been subject to American laws his whole life. But the 53-year-old father and husband isn’t considered a US citizen by the federal government because he was born in American Samoa, a US territory and the only place in the country without automatic claim to citizenship. Now, he’s suing to be recognized as an American.

Fitisemanu is the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of American Samoans in Utah to be treated as US citizens under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The Associated Press obtained the documents before the case was filed.

American Samoa, a US territory since 1900, is a cluster of islands 2,600 miles (4,184 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii perpetually stuck in a legal loophole. People born in the territory are labeled US nationals. Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the US, apply for certain government jobs, or serve on a jury – despite paying taxes to Uncle Sam. They’re even issued special US passports that say: “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

With colleagues, “it’s kind of like an office joke – ‘Hey! John is not a citizen, he’s an alien!’ I know they’re joking, but it still hurts,” Fitisemanu told the AP. “It feels like a slap in your face that you’re born on US soil, but you’re not recognized as a US citizen.”

He’s been rejected for jobs that list US citizenship as a requirement. Prospective employers “need me to show them proof that I am a US citizen, which I am not.”

Rosavita Tuli, another plaintiff in the case, has had to obtain special permits and pay fees that wouldn’t apply to US citizens when visiting her aging parents outside American Samoa, according to court documents.

Although American Samoans can pursue naturalized citizenship, the lawsuit says it is a “lengthy, costly, and burdensome” process.

Over the years, Congress has decided on a per territory basis to allow those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands to claim citizenship by birth. American Samoa’s population of about 55,000, however, has continued to fall to the wayside.

“This is the holding pattern we’ve been in now for over a century,” said Sam Erman, an expert in constitutional law and a professor at the University of Southern California. Still, Erman and many legal scholars agree that “American Samoans are clearly citizens under the 14th Amendment.”

This lawsuit places a question mark over whether the millions that lived in the Philippines while the country was a US territory for five decades until 1946 would also be able to seek US citizenship, said Erman, who plans to file a legal brief on the current lawsuit.