The United States is often criticized for neglecting its territories. Politically, socially, and economically, the federal government has excluded and forgotten its territories. Many would argue that such criticism is deserved. For instance, the federal government has continued to turn a blind eye to the Puerto Rican call for statehood. Still, we may ask: are there any citizens of these territories that prefer this neglect? One may be surprised to find that the answer is yes.
American Samoa is the only US territory that has not received formal American citizenship. According to its leaders, it wishes to stay that way. An American Samoan government official, Neil Pilcher, expressed his concern over the possibility of US citizenship. He argued that it would jeopardize their identity and culture. Not only this, but he feared a change of status would eventually lead to a seizure of their land rights and the collapse of their political system.
And last year, a Federal Appeals Court agreed with Pilcher. On June 15th, 2021, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that sided with three American Samoans living in Utah who sued for their right to American citizenship. The overriding ruling stated, “There is simply insufficient case law to conclude with certainty that citizenship will have no effect on the legal status of the fa’a Samoa,” meaning granting citizenship to American Samoans might disrupt the culture of the islands. Michael Williams, an attorney representing the government of American Samoa, which intervened in the original lawsuit, similarly argued that the ruling was “a vindication for the principle that the people of American Samoa should determine their own status in accordance with Samoan culture and traditions.” As of right now, it definitely seems that American Samoa prefers its current treatment when it comes to citizenship rights.
Recently, President Biden urged the Supreme Court not to take up Fitisemanu v. United States. The case would have reexamined the Insular Cases of 1901 and given the Supreme Court the opportunity to expand the rights of US territories. The court, however, declined to take up the case even as judges on both sides have expressed interest in overturning the Insular Cases. Both Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayor have condemned their racist foundations. Regardless, many have found Biden’s hesitancy to endorse the court pursuing this revolutionary case to be both confusing and unpopular, and pro-territory activists have criticized the administration for this stance.
In the future, the federal government may give some legitimacy to national calls for citizenship by American Samoa citizens. Currently, however, it’s clear that their government is hesitant about accepting such rights in an effort to protect their long enduring culture.
Great article! There is a more specific problem here, though. It’s not a generalized fear of cultural disruption. Rather, there are laws in Samoa, including rules about who can buy land based on heritage, which would be unconstitutional if the U.S. Constitution applied in American Samoa. This is a specific practical problem for American Samoa. The Supreme Court should reexamine the Insular Cases, but Fitsemanu is probably not the right case to use.
I have NEVER been to Samoa, but I appreciate the culture has warmth and tenacity
Why overturn the insular cases when you can grant them citizenship when if they move here they can get a new cultural life, but if they want to stay in Samoa, what other rights are granted as U.S. citizens?