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The Only U.S. Territory Without U.S. Birthright Citizenship

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Perhaps surprisingly, the government of American Samoans, as well as a majority of its citizens, is opposed to its residents acquiring birthright citizenship, particularly by judicial fiat, said Michael F. Williams, a lawyer who represents the government.

In 1900, chiefs in American Samoa agreed to become part of the United States by signing a deed, which included protections for fa’a Samoa, a phrase meaning “the Samoan way” that refers to the islands’ traditional culture.

“The American Samoan people have concerns that incorporating citizenship wholesale to the territory of American Samoa could have a harmful impact on traditional Samoan culture,” Williams said. He added: “The American Samoans believe if they need to make this fundamental change, they should be the ones to bring it upon themselves, not have some judge in Salt Lake City, or in Denver, Colorado, or Washington, D.C., doing it.”

Yet the reasons American Samoans do not have birthright citizenship were not originally related to any effort to protect Samoan culture. Instead, a set of court cases in the early 20th century, known as the “Insular Cases,” established that U.S. territories were at once part of the United States and outside of it. The reason, the Supreme Court ruled in 1901, was that these territories were “foreign in a domestic sense,” “inhabited by alien races,” and that therefore governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.”

Those calling for a legislative change include Charles Ala’ilima, a lawyer based in American Samoa.

“There’s only one class of citizens in the United States — except here in American Samoa,” he said. “What we have now is basically the imposition of second-class status on a people that are under the sovereignty of the government. That is the definition of colonialism.”

Some legal scholars contend that American Samoa is not entirely subject to the United States Constitution, allowing it to maintain certain features of life, including the sa, a prayer curfew in place in some villages, and traditional communal ownership of land. Imposing birthright citizenship, they argue, would put those traditions at legal risk.

But in the 1970s, a court in Washington, D.C., found that residents of American Samoa had the right to a jury trials “as guaranteed by our Constitution” — even after a court in American Samoa said that introducing jury trials would be “an arbitrary, illogical, and inappropriate foreign imposition.”

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