American Samoa Op-Ed

American Samoa

The citizenship status of American Samoans has long bothered me. The status of all the people in the outlaying territories of the United States has bothered me since I was stationed in Guam, but America Samoa seemed particularly egregious. People forget that these places even exist; I knew a guy from Guam that liked to quiz people to get them to name the five territories, and I don’t know if I ever saw anyone get it. With the most recent upswell of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was thinking about American Samoans and how they were screwed by a lack of citizenship, so I decided to write an op-ed about it. After some Googling, turns out the situation was more complex than I thought, but I tried to write an op-ed about it anyways. After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that as a white guy who’s never even been to America Samoa, I wasn’t in a great position to speak to the issues in a way that ensured I was getting them right. I pondered trying to reach out to some American Samoans to see if I had successfully grasped the issues, but then worried I would be just trying to find a random American Samoan only to confirm my own viewpoints. So I decided to not try to get it published in any publication more widely read than my blog that no one reads, but I needed to get it out of my head. This is that attempt at an op-ed: 

As the United States continues to reckon with the racist legacies of its systems, I think an appropriate issue to raise is the citizenship status of American Samoans. Despite being a part of the United States, and under US jurisdiction, the people of American Samoa are not citizens, but are instead “US nationals.” The most straightforward way to say it is that this renders them second-class citizens, but of course they are not citizens at all. Because of their status, American Samoans are unable to hold certain federal jobs, vote in federal elections, or run for elected office. And as a mark of their status, their passports are stamped “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

American Samoan’s status as US nationals is rooted in the Insular Cases – a series of Supreme Court cases decided in 1901, during one of the most aggressive periods of US overseas expansion. During those cases, the Court invented a doctrine that allowed the United States to extend sovereignty over foreign lands, but without necessarily granting the people in those lands rights under the Constitution. The United States wanted the resources, but not the people. They believed that the “primitive” people inhabiting the Pacific islands the United States was claiming as its own were unworthy of full inclusion into the “civilized” society of the mainland, or else that granting them full citizenship could potentially “dilute” the US racial makeup.

The reason, therefore, that American Samoans are not automatically granted US citizenship at birth is rooted in century-old racism. On this topic we have luckily progressed somewhat – unlike in American Samoa, the people in the other US territories, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands are citizens from birth. They gained this right via acts of Congress, as required by the Insular Cases.

In the 120 years since the US acquired the islands, there have in fact been several attempts to grant the people of American Samoa birthright citizenship. The most recent was last December, when a federal judge in Utah ruled that American Samoans had automatic citizenship under the Constitution, a ruling he immediately stayed pending appeals. However, these attempts have been opposed every single time by an extremely invested actor: the local government of American Samoa itself. The government of American Samoa fears that automatic citizenship would fundamentally threaten their way of life.

The American Samoan way of life, or fa’a Samoa, is rooted in communal land ownership and community networks. The American Samoans fear that, were they to fall under an increased scrutiny by the United States government, this method of communal land ownership would be declared unconstitutional and lead to the destruction of their culture. Based on the experience of other indigenous groups in the United States, I would say they are right to worry.

Here is the central tragedy of American Samoan’s position: their status as US nationals, and the indignities that heaps upon them, is because of outright racism in the burgeoning American Empire over a century ago. However, it is that same status that protects them from another aspect of American racism, the racism that disrespects native culture and indigenous ways of life, and has historically opened up native lands to expropriation and exploitation by colonizers and settlers.

There has to be a better solution than the status quo. American Samoans are able to gain full US citizenship via an abbreviated naturalization process that requires living in a US state or territory other than American Samoa for three months and paying $725 in fees. These requirements can be burdensome, preventing American Samoans that desire it from obtaining citizenship. Congress could instead allow American Samoans to automatically become citizens upon request, without a fee.

A better solution, of course, would be a United States that allowed for automatic citizenship to all the people under its jurisdiction, while managing to respect indigenous peoples and their ways of life. With a political movement dedicated to undoing the consequences of white supremacy against Black and Indigenous people of color, that America might be possible. In the meantime, it would help simply to grant American Samoans an easier path towards claiming the rights they deserve.