Samoans in Seattle sue feds for citizenship

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Pago Pago, on the island of Tutuila, is the capital of American Samoa. The volcanic island chain is in the South Pacific and has a similar climate to Hawaii. (Photo from NOAA via Flickr)

Imagine being born in a country where you can work, travel freely and even join the military, but you’re not considered a citizen.

That’s the situation facing 56,000 residents of American Samoa, the only one of 14 US territories that does not allow an easy path to citizenship for people who move to the mainland US.

If you flipped open to the back page of an American Samoan’s passport, you would see a stamp that says: “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

But a new lawsuit with roots in the Pacific Northwest is looking to change that.

Earlier this month, a group of American Samoans living in the mainland US filed the suit to overturn federal laws and policies that prevent them from having the same rights as an American citizens. The lawyers for the case argue that the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly entitles American Samoans to have the same rights as an American citizen.

One of those lawyers is Bainbridge Island resident Charles Ala’ilima.

“[I took this case on because] it’s been 112 years since the United States took over these islands and that’s about long enough to decide what kind of people you are,” he said.

Other attorneys on the case come from the Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C. based think tank and law firm that seeks to uphold rights granted by the Constitution. Ala’ilima said they had contacted him regarding the case in order to find any American Samoans who had experienced some hardship due to their status as a non-citizen national.

He pointed out how, despite not having the same rights, many American Samoans serve in the U.S. military.

“[They] fight under that flag, [they] die under that flag. Per capita, American Samoa has…suffered the most from these wars because they have so many kids that join the military and that is American Samoa’s contribution to American culture,” he said.

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A late 19th century map shows the two larger islands to the west that became the independent nation of Samoa, and the smaller islands to the east that are controlled by the US. American Samoa is the only US territory where residents are not granted citizenship if they move to the mainland US. (Map from CloudSurfer via Wikipedia)

American Samoa has been home to a U.S. naval base for over a century. And in a territory with 23 percent unemployment, many young people living there often find themselves with no better option than to enlist. Four of the six plaintiffs in the case also have extensive military service, but are still not considered citizens.

Six plaintiffs were brought in to join the case. One of them is Seattle resident Taffy Lei Maene. In February 2011, she worked for the state Department of Licensing where she issued licenses, identification cards and sat with people during their test drives.

“I loved my job,” she said.

Maene said she was hired on a probationary one-year period; after her one year was up, a final decision would be made whether to keep her on as a permanent employee. During her one year period, a new change in the department took place: the issuing of enhanced drivers’ licenses for state residents who wanted to visit Canada without needing a passport.

“In order to issue that license, you had to be a U.S. citizen yourself,” she said.

At the end of her probationary year in February 2012, her employer wanted to keep her on board, but she needed to provide proof of citizenship. She submitted her American Samoa birth certificate and her United States passport and red flags came up when they realized she was only considered a national and not a citizen.

American Samoa license plate. (Photo from Wikipedia via Monroe Dictator)

“Two weeks later, they called me and said I had to be separated and don’t meet the requirements to work for the Department of Licensing,” she said.

In the three months that followed, she lived off $200 a week of unemployment as she looked for new work. She lost her health benefits and was stressed and fearful of being unable to pay rent and utility bills off her unemployment benefits.

Maene now works for the Department of Social and Health Services and her new job doesn’t require citizenship. They did, however, question her as to why she was let go from the DOL. When she explained her citizenship status, they then questioned her if she was a legal citizen.

Maene, along with others born in American Samoa, are not completely barred from citizenship. But unlike their counterparts from other U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, they are the only ones who must jump over bureaucratic hurdles as if they were an immigrant. This includes paying a $675 fee to take the citizenship test issued by the federal government, a cost that people from all other US territories can dodge.

“I should have the rights of a U.S. citizen,” Maene said. “Being able to go out there and not have an employer question my citizenship [and] explaining to people who I am – it doesn’t have to be that way.”

In 1900, the United States Navy took over the islands that would eventually become American Samoa, after a naval dispute over the islands with Germany.

“I think the racial undertones (in the early 20th century) were such that (the United States) didn’t really want to bring all these people and give them citizenship,” Ala’ilima said.

A bill that would grant citizenship rights to American Samoans was debated in 1929, but was eventually voted down by Congress. The island territory was given a chance to become independent but they chose to stay with the United States.

Ala’ilima hopes that the Department of Justice will overturn the policies without any further issues.

“It’s a simple lawsuit,” he said. “But if the federal government wants to defend this…we are prepared to respond.”

Among the other ironies, American Samoans’ status as a U.S. national also affects their entry into independent Samoa, which sits to the west of American Samoa. American citizens don’t pay an entry or exit tax and don’t need a visitor’s permit. American Samoans who have the “U.S. national” stamp in their passports, on the other hand, must pay that tax and apply for a visitor’s permit – to a country with which they share similar culture and roots.

“What an insult,” Ala’ilima said. “So the real question is, if we’re not U.S. citizens, what are we really citizens of?”

Judy Vue is a freelance reporter and a 2009 graduate of the UW Department of Communication. She has written for the Seattle PI, the Highline Times, and has worked as a news radio producer for KUOW and KIRO. In her free time, she enjoys reading, swimming, and hiking, but is not very good at the last two. She also does volunteer work for Wing Luke Museum.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Born in American Samoa, raised in Southern California. Married had four kids in California, two of which joined the U.S. Army right out of High School. My kids and I decided to all go take College classes…to my surprise my Sociology Professor Mr. Cleveland of Honolulu Community College pointed out, I was not a U.S. Citizen but a U.S. National.

    I was surprised at what I heard about my citizenship. And confused about the whole subject. I was consumed with thoughts of my belief of service to my country (USA), my allegiance to the United States of America. My Sweet land of liberty(USA). My land where my fathers died. My land where I pledged my allegiance to the Flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

    I truly believed and with all my heart, ready and willing to die for the freedom of the United States of America because I thought (and still do) the United States of America is a mother country to the American Samoan Islands.

    I would support Mr. Ala’ilima in his efforts to challenge the status of our citizenship. And I thank you to the Samoan Brothers and Sisters in Seattle for their vision of clarity and love for their people and our young generation to reap the blessings that is long over due to be resolved. I pray a blessing upon you all and peace be with you all. Soifua.

    By the Grace of God, American Samoan must be recognized as USA citizen and not U.S. Nationals. Freedom under God and the blood of our Children we declare our allegiance to that God given freedom. Defend it.

  2. Why Are They Suing the Federal Government? Anyone Who Knows Their History Will Know That The Only Reason We Aren’t Citizens Is Because Of What Our Forefathers Wanted When We Became Part Of The United States. Keep The Land And The Culture And They Will Keep Their Citizenship. Simply Put, The American Samoan Constitution Needs To Be Changed Before We Will Ever Get Citizenship. I Like What CA Is Getting At, But I Never Bite The Hand That Feeds American Samoa.

  3. Please, re-post the outcome of this case or its ongoing progress. We are very
    interested and in full support of the case.
    Viet Nam era Army veteran

  4. Thank you so much for this article. As others who have commented, I would like to know how the lawsuit turned out. Do you have any news about it?

    All the best
    John

  5. Thank you Mr. Alai’ilima for bring this issue to light. Why are they denying citizenship to the American Samoa community. Lots of our children have shedd their blood to protect this great nation, and this is how they show their appreciation. What is our representative (Eni Hunkin) doing at the white house. UGH!!

  6. I agree with Dream Machine. This is what our forefathers wanted. If they had chosen citizenship, American Samoa would’ve become like Hawaii. Our culture and our land will fade and become another tourist destination. American Samoans- we are Citizens of American Samoa. Be proud of your homeland. If you move to the Mainland, and wish to become a citizen, by all means, take the test to obtain Citizenship.

    Repost: “Why Are They Suing the Federal Government? Anyone Who Knows Their History Will Know That The Only Reason We Aren’t Citizens Is Because Of What Our Forefathers Wanted When We Became Part Of The United States. Keep The Land And The Culture And They Will Keep Their Citizenship. Simply Put, The American Samoan Constitution Needs To Be Changed Before We Will Ever Get Citizenship. I Like What CA Is Getting At, But I Never Bite The Hand That Feeds American Samoa.”

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