By SOPHIA YAN
HONOLULU (AP) — Meet John Fitisemanu, who works for a lab company in Utah, and has paid U.S. taxes and been subject to American laws his whole life. But the 53-year-old father and husband isn’t considered a U.S. citizen by the federal government, because he was born in American Samoa, a U.S. 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 on March 27 on behalf of American Samoans in Utah to be treated as U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The Associated Press obtained the documents before the case was filed.
People born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory since 1900, are instead considered U.S. nationals.
Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the U.S., or serve on a jury — despite paying taxes to Uncle Sam. They’re even issued special U.S. 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 U.S. soil, but you’re not recognized as a U.S. citizen.’’
He’s even been rejected for jobs that list U.S. citizenship as a requirement. Prospective employers “need me to show them proof that I am a U.S. 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 U.S. 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. The cost to apply is $725, and legal fees pile up if applicants hire an attorney to help navigate the process.
For Fitisemanu, a previous divorce and other financial burdens have prevented him from going that route. “I don’t know why we need to go through a process to be recognized as U.S. citizens when you are born in American Samoa — hence the name ‘American’ in front of the word, ‘Samoa,’’’ he said.
Those born in the territory, however, can claim citizenship at birth if one of their parents is a U.S. citizen. The same generally holds true for children born abroad to Americans.
This is Weare’s second attempt on the issue. A previous case he led stalled in 2016 when the Supreme Court declined to reconsider a ruling from a lower court in D.C., which found the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship didn’t apply to American Samoa, and referred back to controversial colonial era decisions from the early 20th century after the U.S. acquired a spate of territories in the Spanish American War.
Known as the “Insular Cases,’’ the Supreme Court distinguished between “incorporated’’ and “unincorporated’’ territories. The former, such as Arizona and New Mexico, mostly settled by white people, were thought destined to be a permanent part of the U.S. The latter, such as American Samoa, weren’t considered candidates for statehood, whose inhabitants were described as “alien races’’ and “uncivilized,’’ and thus weren’t granted full constitutional rights.
Over the years, Congress has decided on a per territory basis whether those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands can claim citizenship by birth. American Samoa, 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, he thinks “American Samoans are clearly citizens under the 14th Amendment.’’
If the courts decide favorably, a question mark hangs over whether the millions that lived in the Philippines while the country was a U.S. territory for five decades until 1946 would also be able to seek U.S. citizenship. “That haunts the case,’’ said Erman, who plans to file a legal brief on the current lawsuit.
The local American Samoan government has before taken a nuanced view over the issue, given concern about how various aspects to Samoan life and culture “would be jeopardized if subjected to scrutiny under the 14th Amendment,’’ according to court documents filed in 2014 by lawyers representing the government. American Samoa Governor Lolo Moliga didn’t respond to a request for comment. The U.S. State Department, named as the defendents on the lawsuit, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
American Samoa consists of seven South Pacific islands located 2,600 miles (4,184 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii. The islands are home to about 55,000 residents, most of which live in or near the capital of Pago Pago.
Utah has a major Samoan population, and if the case there is decided favorably, this would create a “circuit split,’’ or a conflicting ruling to what was previously decided, which could add pressure to the federal government to review. “The odds of getting up to the Supreme Court go way up,’’ Erman said.
Until then, Fitisemanu is standing firm: “People will say what they want to say, and I’m going to believe in what I want to believe, and I believe that I should be a U.S. citizen.’’