On Monday, October 17, the United States Supreme Court declined to take up a case asking whether those born in American Samoa are entitled to birthright citizenship under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Since the island group became a US territory in 1900, the federal government has refused residents of American Samoa birthright citizenship. The US Congress previously decided on a territory-by-territory basis whether people born in the five overseas territories including Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands automatically become US citizens. To date, American Samoa is the only territory that has been denied this right. This court ruling preserves the current arrangement which prevents thousands of people living in the territory from running for office at the federal and state levels, serving on juries, and even voting. As the US comes closer to the 2024 Presidential Election, it is crucial that as many Americans as possible—mainland and territory residents alike—have these rights.
As people across the country deal with the implications of this ruling, critics have spoken out. John Fitisemanu, one of the lead plaintiffs in this case, described the decision as a “‘punch in the gut,’ adding that “the justices continue to avoid answering basic questions about what rights people from US territories can expect.” In a recent statement, Fitisemanu reasoned that “the Supreme Court in recent years has not hesitated to rule in ways that harm residents of US territories… but when asked to stand up for the rights of people in the territories–even the basic right to citizenship–the justices are silent.”
What does this silence mean for residents of the US territories? The thousands of American Samoans who hold a US passport and pay taxes are not allowed many of the freedoms American citizens hold. These people are recognized as “non-citizen US Nationals” under immigration law, which means they are not permitted to vote or participate in state or federal elections. With record-high temperatures worsening concerns about climate change, a major reduction in federal Medicaid funds, and other concerns facing the US territories, it’s highly important that equal representation in the Supreme Court is granted to these territories.
As the effects of this landmark decision spread, people across the nation continue to wait, with bated breath, for what will happen next.