When the United States colonized American Samoa at the beginning of the 20th century it left the locals with no citizenship at all. Today American Samoans are considered to be U.S. “nationals” but not citizens.
Taffy-lei T. Maene first realized she wasn’t a U.S. citizen when her employer with the Washington state government asked her for her work authorization documents. She showed them her U.S. passport and was called into a small office.
“They fired me right there,” Maene says.
As U.S. “nationals” American Samoans have a unique quasi-stateless status. Without citizenship rights, tens of thousands of American Samoans are at risk of experiencing something similar to Maene.
In order to convert their nationality to citizenship they have to move to Hawaii or the mainland United States, live there for three months and then go through a byzantine naturalization process that can take months or years. Without citizenship they’re denied basic rights offered to all Americans, such as voting while on the mainland or applying to work in many government jobs, among other disadvantages.
A groundbreaking lawsuit on the issue, launched by frustrated American Samoans, is currently winding its way through the federal courts. But in the meantime, community leaders are upset. In addition to the indignity of “Americans,” many of whom have served in the U.S. military, being forced to prove that they deserve citizenship to the federal government, the complexity of the naturalization process angers many.
“It is absolutely wrong,” says Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, President of the Samoan Federation of America, a Carson, Calif.-based community organization that has joined the lawsuit. “We are as American as anyone else and deserve citizenship at birth.”
Congress has shown little interest in tackling the issue and American Samoan government leaders have spoken out against the lawsuit, arguing that it could put American Samoa’s unique traditions, such as its communal land ownership structure, in jeopardy. The lawsuit’s success could open the door to constitutional challenges of local traditions and birthright citizenship itself could be a slippery slope, they say.
Those traditions have their roots in the United States’ unique relationship with American Samoa – in the early 20th century American officials brought the territory under its control, while preventing American Samoans from gaining birthright citizenship.
That’s hogwash, believes Esera Mamoe, a 61-year-old California-based community organizer with American nationality, who has served in the U.S. Marines but refuses to go through a naturalization process. People born on other U.S. territories, such as Guam and Puerto Rico gain citizenship automatically, so why should the same be true for American Samoans.
“Why should I have to naturalize?” he asks. “This is like my own government telling me I don”t matter.”