U.S. court rejects American Samoans' bid for full citizenship rights

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 05, 2015 11:15 AM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled against a group of American Samoans who had argued that those born in the U.S. territory in the South Pacific should be eligible for U.S. citizenship at birth.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, noting that both the U.S. government and the government in American Samoa opposed the campaign, rejected the legal challenge made by named plaintiff Leneuoti Fiafia Tuaua and seven others.

Writing on behalf of a three-judge panel, Judge Janice Rogers Brown said the court was sympathetic to the claim, but reluctant to “impose citizenship by judicial fiat - where doing so requires us to override the democratic prerogatives of the American Samoan people themselves.”

The court held that the so-called citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment does not extend to unincorporated U.S. territories.

The clause says that "all persons born ... in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

Citizenship would have made the plaintiffs eligible for full U.S. passports and such rights as being able to vote while residing in a state. Currently, Samoans can obtain U.S. passports with an imprint describing them as noncitizen U.S. nationals.

American Samoa, a U.S. territory since 1900, is unique as the only U.S. territory where those born there are not automatically U.S. citizens, the Samoans’ lawsuit said.

Those born in the territory can claim citizenship if, at birth, they had a parent who was a citizen. They can also pursue U.S. naturalization, but the lawsuit said they should not need to go through that "lengthy, costly and burdensome" process.

The case is Leneuoti Tuaua v. USA, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 13-5272.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)