UPDATE: Territorial brothers, sisters supporting birthright citizenship
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Reversing a federal district court decision, which grants automatic US citizenship to people born in American Samoa “would only create additional questions about their belonging in the American polity,” according to current and former Delegates to the US House as well as former and current governors from Guam, Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), Puerto Rico and US Virgin islands.
The elected officials from these four territories filed their “Amici Curiae” — or “friends of the court” — brief on May 12th with US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals which is hearing an appeal by defendants — the US State Department and senior officials — and Intervenors — the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Aumua Amata.
The defendants and Intervenors appealed in April a ruling by the federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah, which states that “Persons born in American Samoa are citizens of the United States by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The court sided with the plaintiffs, who are three American Samoans living in Utah.
The Amici argued, among other things, that while they are respectful of American Samoa’s leaders, granting US citizenship to persons born in American Samoa — who are currently considered US nationals — will not imperil the Samoan culture nor will it alter American Samoa’s legal regime. (See Samoa News edition May 15th for part one of the Amici’s 45-page argument brief.)
According to the Amici, reversing the lower court’s decision “would further push the Territories towards the periphery of the American political project, as they continue to confront the challenges that unequal access to federal resources, economic collapse, and natural catastrophe have compounded in recent years.”
“Because the [US] Supreme Court has made clear that citizenship resulting from legislative grace is not entitled to the same protections as Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship, reversing the district court’s decision would not only impact American Samoans but also destabilize the U.S. citizenship enjoyed by the people of Guam, the NMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” they further argued.
“Lacking voting representation in Congress, facing disparate access to federal funds, and contending with diminished local government capacity after the recent disasters, the Territories are now on the verge of yet another calamity as they confront the quickly-evolving threat of COVID-19,” according to the Amici.
(Samoa News notes that American Samoa is the only US jurisdiction — state or territory — without a COVID-19 case or death.)
They point out that for decades, disparities in federal funding have compromised the access of territorial residents to quality healthcare. For example, the matching funding rate formula for the Medicaid program. The Amici discussed the “disparities” faced by the territories and other health matters.
“The human impact of these disparities — which hinder the capacity of medical facilities in the Territories to treat a range of conditions — could not be more evident. As just one example, American Samoan cancer patients have been forced to travel to New Zealand to receive the critical care they cannot obtain at home,” the Amici argued.
The Amici also argued that U.S. citizens who live in the Territories “face a myriad of challenges based on their perceived subordinate status, and reversing the lower court’s decision “would only create additional questions about their belonging in the American polity.”
According to the Amici, an appeal’s court ruling for the Plaintiffs will not involve this Court in a “conquest of American Samoa” by “judicial fiat,” as “American Samoa provocatively suggests” in its brief.
Instead, it “would simply recognize what the Constitution plainly demands: that the Citizenship Clause applies with full force to all persons born in the Territories because the Territories are in the United States,” they argue.
Lead attorney for the plaintiffs is Neil Weare, president and founder of the non-profit US based group, Equally American, which advocates for equality and civil rights for the nearly 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories.
Weare said this case is on an expedited schedule on appeal, with plaintiffs hoping for a decision from the Tenth Circuit before November so they might be able to vote in the upcoming presidential elections.
Others who joined with “Amici Curiae” are — Samoan Federation of America; Citizenship Scholars; Scholars of Constitutional Law and Legal History; American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Utah; and US Virgin Islands Bar Association.
"We are thrilled to see such broad support for what should be a pretty simple concept – if you are born on U.S. soil, whether in a State or a Territory, the Constitution guarantees you the right to U.S. citizenship,” Weare said in a news release.
“The amicus parties reflect a wide range of perspectives and experiences, which I think will help convince the Tenth Circuit to affirm the [Salt Lake City] district court’s historic decision,” Weare said.
On May 5th the plaintiffs responded urging the appeal’s court to affirm the lower court’s decision. (See Samoa News edition May 7th for details.)
Last week the defendants and Intervenors filed separate reply briefs to plaintiffs’ arguments. Oral argument in the case are expected later this summer.