I welcome the recent Samoa News Op-Ed by Charles V. Ala’ilima entitled “Flag Day – A Time to Consider Our History.” In his article, Mr. Ala’ilima addresses several important issues including the history of American Samoa’s relationship with the United States, the question of citizenship, and the preservation of our land and culture – issues worthy of serious discussion amongst our people.
However, Mr. Ala’ilima’s argument makes several unsubstantiated claims which I believe do not accurately reflect the nuance of debate and public opinion tied to these historical dilemmas. First, Mr. Ala’ilima states that our traditional leaders – as a whole – believed they entered into agreement with the U.S. as citizens and that citizenship by birth was a right guaranteed by the Constitution. He cites examples of territorial leaders testifying in favor of citizenship while at the same time omitting equally relevant examples of leaders who opposed the imposition of citizenship. No single person can, in one swoop of their pen, speak on behalf of all “our traditional leaders.”
Mr. Ala’ilima fails to provide any shred of evidence to prove that citizenship is not only an unquestionable right, but also a long-established desire and indisputable benefit to our people. Quoting testimony from three matai to the 1931 American Samoa Commission prepared for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Ala’ilima assumes that our leaders believed “citizenship by birth in American Samoa is a right guaranteed by the Constitution.” However, there is no evidence to suggest our leaders in 1931 sought a Constitutional right to become U.S. citizens. To the contrary there are numerous examples of when our territorial leaders opposed the imposition of citizenship because of fears that it would lead to the entire U.S. Constitution applying to American Samoa. For example, in February 1948, some 90 matai, or our traditional leaders, requested that all bills before the U.S. Congress dealing with American Samoa, including citizenship issues, be tabled for 10 years.
Second, Mr. Ala’ilima states our leaders understood then that the question of citizenship was a separate question from the preservation of our land and culture. Mr. Ala’ilima again makes this claim without any supporting evidence. Our territorial leaders frequently considered the question of whether to become U.S. citizens throughout the 20th century but concerns about its affect on our traditional land and matai titles prevented the imposition of citizenship.
In 1961, the Study Mission to American Samoa issued a report to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. The members of the Study Mission, along with the Samoan matais, were uncertain of the judicial response if Congress granted citizenship to American Samoans. Specifically, the study reported that “it is highly probable that a majority of American Samoans desire citizenship, yet many are gravely troubled as to whether the equal protection of the laws doctrine implicit in citizenship would conflict with Samoan land for Samoans doctrine and the Matai system.” Due to the uncertainty surrounding the granting of U.S. citizenship and its affect on the Samoan culture, the Study Mission recommended delaying the grant of citizenship. See Study Mission to Eastern (American) Samoa, Report of Sens. Long and Gruening to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, S. Doc. No. 33, 87th Cong., 1st Sess. (1961). Additionally, a 1975 memorandum of the Office of the Samoan Delegate-at-Large warned of conflict with U.S. constitutional provisions because of the racial restrictions on land and the matai system. The divided sentiment among our leaders regarding citizenship strongly indicates that the decision to apply citizenship to U.S. nationals remains unsettled.
I am not opposed to citizenship for U.S. nationals, however, I disagree with Mr. Ala’ilima’s argument that a federal court in Washington D.C. should decide if people in American Samoa should become U.S. citizens. Mr. Ala’ilima has failed to provide a single case in any jurisdiction that has accepted the argument that U.S. nationals are entitled to birthright citizenship. All previous attempts to obtain U.S. citizenship for U.S. nationals have involved enacting legislation by the U.S. Congress. An organic act is legislation passed by Congress that establishes an official governmental relationship between a territory and the U.S. Government. American Samoa is the only territory without an organic act.
The benefit of an organic act is that the people can negotiate the terms of their relationship with the United States, which obviously includes the question of citizenship. Congress is the branch of government under the U.S. Constitution most capable of addressing both the needs of the U.S. and the current and future political, social, and economic interests of people born in American Samoa. Congress can hold hearings and conduct studies on the benefits and risks of applying citizenship to American Samoa. Alternatively, a judge can only apply the law to the facts of the case and cannot take into account the wishes of the people of American Samoa. If people in American Samoa want to become citizens they should vote in a referendum or plebiscite to determine if this is what they want.
All other U.S. territories received citizenship through Congress’ power to establish rules of naturalization as stipulated under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution. People within the U.S. Virgin Islands became U.S. citizens when Congress granted citizenship to all Danish citizens who resided on the islands on January 17, 1917 and within the territory of the U.S. on February 25, 1927. Persons in Puerto Rico became citizens when Congress passed the Nationality Act of 1940. Persons in Guam became citizens when Congress passed the Guam Organic Act in 1950. Residents in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) became citizens in 1976 when Congress resolved to accept a Covenant of Political Union between the islands and the U.S.
Applying the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment to U.S. nationals has never been done before, and American Samoa should not be a testing ground for theoretical legal interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. The idea to file Tuaua v. U.S., a lawsuit to apply the Citizenship Clause to U.S. nationals did not originate in American Samoa; instead it originated from the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC), a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. The lawsuit is the first time that the CAC has brought trial court litigation. While CAC has little to lose if its lawsuit fails, American Samoa faces the destruction of fa’a Samoa if the Equal Protection Clause applies to the territory.
Third, Mr. Ala’ilima states that it is likely that future courts will preserve our communal lands and matai titles because of the important interest of cultural preservation. In 1980, the High Court of American Samoa in Craddick v. Territorial Registrar found a compelling state interest in preserving the fa’a Samoa, and acknowledged “the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection are fundamental rights which apply in the Territory of American Samoa.” However, the American Samoa High Court revisited the case 20 years later and held that Craddick did not address the Equal Protection Clause at all. Mr. Ala’ilima has no evidence to guarantee that our culture will be safe if the imposition of the Citizenship clause to U.S. nationals results in the Equal Protection Clause applying to the territory.
About eighteen years ago, I wrote a chapter in my book, “Navigating the Future,” discussing our relationship with the United States. As a territory we need to start to look at whether being an unorganized, unincorporated territory is beneficial for American Samoa. I do not support our current political status and encourage everyone to begin discussing our future political status. My greatest fear is that the future of American Samoa will be determined by outside social, political, and economic influence and not by the people living in the territory. The Tuaua v. U.S. federal lawsuit initiated by the CAC is an important reminder of the danger of outside influences imposing its will on the people of our territory.
Our people deserve the opportunity to make a determination whether or not to become U.S. citizens. For this reason, I intend to introduce a bill in Congress to direct the Secretary of the Interior for American Samoa Government, to conduct a plebiscite for our people in American Samoa to determine whether we should become U.S. citizens. If so, Congress will then deliberate whether to grant citizenship to our people. This has been the procedure for all other U.S. territories, and there is absolutely no reason that American Samoa should do otherwise.
I have already communicated my concerns to Governor Lolo and the leaders and members of the Fono. I sincerely hope they will conduct public meetings and hearings so that our people will be better informed of what is at stake here.
American Samoa can no longer afford the luxury of not facing up to some of the real challenges that are before us. This issue of citizenship is one of those fundamental questions that need serious deliberation. A final decision must be made now by our people and not by a court 7,000 miles away from our shores.