American Samoans are not American citizens

by | Jun 27, 2018 | American Samoa, Context of islands, Headlines | Comments

The United States currently has five unincorporated territories that are permanently uninhabited, and that as such face particular disadvantages politically, legally, and practically. Of the five, one stands at a unique disadvantage due to how the US treats its residents: American Samoans are not American citizens. Treated as an outlying possession with no organic act officially organizing its government, residents of the islands of American Samoa are considered Nationals, a status that grants them free entry to live and work in the states and other territories, but requires them to naturalize as if a foreign national or citizen. This treatment is symptomatic of American Samoa’s treatment by the US, which continues to make decisions on behalf of, and for the people of the territory, without their consent.

A wanted harbor

First visited by westerners in the early 18th century, the Samoan Islands became a valued spot for European and American vessels, despite the hostility from the local tribes. After a visit by the US Exploring Expedition, and a continuing rivalry between the US and Imperial Germany over control of the islands, tensions were simmering. Multiple failed accords came and went, with the 1899 Tripartite Convention settling disputes, and laying the foundation of the Samoan Islands present geopolitical reality. In the accord, Imperial Germany took control of the larger, western islands, becoming German Samoa, while the US took complete control of the smaller eastern islands, including Tutuila, Manuʻa Islands Group, and Aunu’u. As part of the agreement, Britain relinquished all rights in the islands in exchange for German concessions elsewhere.

The US Navy took control of the islands after obtaining deeds of control from the locals, formally naming the territory as US Naval Station Tutuila, which in 1911 became American Samoa.

Exemplified by the suppression of the pro-independence Mau movement, the United States asserted its control through World War I, World War II, and beyond, heavily influencing the local culture and way of life.

An unorganized, but self-governing territory

Despite an attempt by the US Department of the Interior to have Congress pass an organic act making American Samoa an incorporated territory, due in part to opposition from locals, Congress has never official passed an organic act. Therefore, American Samoa remains as the only permanently inhabited unorganized US territory, and as such, is under total control of the US President, for which American Samoans as non-citizen nationals, and residents of a territory, cannot vote for. In the Ratification of Act of 1929, Congress vested all civil, judicial, and military powers in the President, who in 1951, through an executive order, delegated those powers to the Secretary of the Interior.

This legal structure is what stands today, and is what was used to allow the territory to have a local constitution, enacted in July 1, 1967 after promulgation by US Secretary of the Interior Fred Andrew Seaton. This means that to this day, the President or their delegate could unilaterally dissolve the local legislature called the Fono, dissolve the constitution, and prevent any other local law from being enacted.

Interestingly, American Samoa’s current status has not all been due to unilateral impositions by the federal government. Attempts to incorporate the territory, have it rejoin independent Samoa, or move towards autonomy or independence have been resisted.

Non-citizen patriots

The intricacies of the debates surrounding the status and legal aspects of American Samoa are manifested in several areas. For instance, efforts in court to automatically extend US citizenship to American Samoans are opposed by some, even by the territory’s delegate in Congress, Amata Aumua Coleman Radewagen, who argues locals should have the choice of whether to become a citizen or not. Instead she says, the naturalization process for US nationals should be simplified, recognizing widespread ignorance of the legal status of nationals, which are akin to permanent legal residents. This position stems from a strong appreciation to local customs, which in American Samoa dictate more than cultural decisions. The local village politics systems of faamatai and faasamoa still dominate life at every level, from family to territorial matters. These two systems dictate policies that would be inconsistent with the total application of the US Constitution and federal laws, for instance in areas like property ownership, which according to local practices is subject to familial requirements, which only ethnic Samoans can meet. Therefore, further integration with the United States, through incorporation, statehood, or automatic extension of citizenship would come in conflict with these highly-valued customs.

At the same time, historically, efforts to move the islands towards independence have remained unsuccessful, seemingly contradicting the resistance to integration. However, in the scope of its history, and practical realities, to some, the status quo remains a happy medium, whereby the territory stands under the protective umbrella of the US, with access to locals who wish to move to the mainland, but also maintaining their ability to continue local customs they otherwise would have to abandon. This shapes American Samoa as a unique jurisdiction, even among the other territories. As a matter of fact, American Samoa is the only territory that controls its immigration system. A consequence of this structure, is that the territory is also the only major jurisdiction in the US not considered as a state for purposes of immigration, which means a US legal permanent resident that moves there, can be considered to have abandoned their permanent legal residence in the US.

American Samoans are not American citizens, and that’s a disadvantage

Complexities of the status of American Samoa notwithstanding, the territory still remains subject to the absolute control of the President and Congress. Lacking a vote for either one of these, residents are under a tremendous disadvantage, and are prone to bearing the consequences of decisions they had no say in, at a disproportional rate. American Samoa stands as the top US jurisdiction in terms of military recruitment, above any other state, territory, or free associated state of the US. As such, decisions by the US to go to war reverberate locally with disproportional casualty rates.

The fact that American Samoans are not American citizens stands as indicative of the territory’s history, its cultural idiosyncrasies, but also of its political, civil, and practical disadvantages. Like in the other territories, locals face the question of whether culture, traditions, and non-permanent autonomy have more value than integration; or on the other hand, if access to the world’s superpower is worth more than the risk of becoming independent. As they ponder, the reality stands that as territories they face a political disadvantage, and in American Samoa’s case, despite its inextricable patriotism and ties to the US, that extends to effectively being considered the last of the last: an unincorporated, unorganized territory, with no American citizens.