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Lemanu urges territories to support Am. Samoa’s self-determination

Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga,
Claims citizenship case “seeks to usurp the power of the U.S. Congress”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga, in a letter to other territorial governors is seeking their support for American Samoa’s stance on self-determination, which — according to opponents of the suit — is currently threatened by the US citizenship federal lawsuit, pending before the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

So says a brief news release from the Governors Office last Thursday afternoon that included Lemanu’s Mar. 19th letter to US Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., who was informed about several organizations and media outlets that have been advocating national voting rights for the territories.

Lemanu informed Bryan that Guam Gov. Leon Guerrero — when approached by one group to support the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit — “declined to insert herself in an issue that has nothing to do with Guam.”

“I sincerely appeal to you to follow her example, because as she recognized, this is a fundamental issue of self-determination,” Lemanu wrote to Bryan, and noted that his administration as well as his predecessor and Congresswoman Uifa’atali Aumua Amata as well as her predecessor have joined the federal government in opposing the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in March 2018 at the federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah, are three American Samoans — John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli — residing in Utah, while the defendants are the US State Department, along with the Secretary of State and other senior officials. Intervenors are the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Uifa’atali Aumua Amata.

The lower court sided with the plaintiffs and ruled in December 2019, that “Persons born in American Samoa are citizens of the United States by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The defendants, joined by the Intervenors appealed the ruling to the 10th Circuit.  While the plaintiffs have asked the appeals court to affirm the lower court’s decision, defendants argued — among other things — that only Congress has the authority to grant citizenship to outlying territories, including American Samoa.

For the Intervenors, they argued, among other things, that this issue should be decided by the people living in American Samoa and not by a federal court thousands of miles away in the US.

Because of COVID-19, arguments before the 10th Circuit were heard last September via video conference rather than in-person, with each of the Judges and attorneys in the case participating via Zoom.

A decision remains pending at the appeal’s court.

In his letter, Lemanu explained to Bryan that the case pending before the 10th Circuit which, as a precursor to national voting rights, would impose U.S. citizenship on American Samoa, where most of the people are US Nationals.

Lemanu points out that “the majority of our people prefer to maintain our status as Nationals” and he asked Bryan “not to support any efforts to impose citizenship on us by court fiat.” He noted that the court case “seeks to usurp the power of the U.S. Congress” and the lawsuit asks the court “to unilaterally declare all U.S. Nationals to be U.S. Citizens regards of where they reside or whether or not they have sought citizenship.”

He recalled an identical case in 2016 filed with the federal court in Washington D.C. which dismissed that lawsuit and the plaintiffs took it to the Supreme Court of the United States which declined to consider it.

Lemanu voiced his concern that if the 10th Circuit upholds the lower court’s ruling, “it would set a precedent that would be dangerous to all territories by diminishing the power of Congress — where we all are represented — to determine the status of territories as provided by the U.S. Constitution.”

He explained that Congress in the past has statutorily considered and passed legislation to grant citizenship to other territories with input from those territories and has sought the views and consent of the people residing there, “but that would not be the case here.”

“American Samoa asks only for that same consideration,” Lemanu wrote. “We have indicated to the Court that it is American Samoa's preference to determine for ourselves the question of citizenship and leave it to Congress in consultation with us to determine such basic rights.”

"Our forebears negotiated an agreement with the United States that protects our lands and customs that we have found satisfactory to date and, which we wish to continue until such time as the people who live here feel differently,” he pointed out.

Lemanu believes that the issue confronting U.S. Nationals in Utah can best be resolved by passage of US House legislation - H.R. 1941 - which “would expedite reclassification of national to citizen to anyone who chooses it.”

And he is pleased that many of the territorial members of the U.S House have already cosponsored that measure, which was introduced by Uifa’atali.

“I once again ask you to rebuff any entreaties for you to support ‘equality’ for territorial voters if it violates our passionate devotion for self-determination,” he wrote to Bryan.

The news release from the Governor’s Office states that Lemanu has urged territorial governors support for self-determination and appreciated the territories' track record of cooperation and support for each other.

Following last September’s oral arguments before the appeals court, John Fitisemanu commented that “I’m optimistic the court will recognize that I am a U.S. citizen, not simply a U.S. national – it’s time to bring an end to this second-class status.”

“Ultimately, the Constitution is clear that if you are born on U.S. soil – whether in state or territory – you have a right to citizenship,” said attorney Matthew D. McGill, who argued on behalf of plaintiffs before the Tenth Circuit.