SALT LAKE CITY — People born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens, a federal judge in Utah ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups’ declaration came in a 69-page decision in a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of three American Samoans in Utah. John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli sued the government to be treated as U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment.

Waddoups agreed, writing, “Any State Department policy that provides that the citizenship provisions of the Constitution do not apply to persons born in American Samoa violates the 14th Amendment.”

In this undated image provided by nonprofit advocacy and legal group Equally American, John Fitisemanu, an American Samoan and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the United States seeking full U.S. citizenship, poses for a photo in Salt Lake City, Ut
In this undated image provided by nonprofit advocacy and legal group Equally American, John Fitisemanu, an American Samoan and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the United States seeking full U.S. citizenship, poses for a photo in Salt Lake City. | Katrina Youd

The judge barred the government from enforcing any rule that says the citizenship provisions of the Constitution do not apply to people born in American Samoa.

“This is a big day for the Constitution and it’s a big day for the American Samoan community that has been marginalized in Utah as a result of these congressional actions over the years,” said Neil Weare, an attorney with Equality America, a nonprofit advocate for equality and civil rights in U.S. territories based in Washington, D.C., who represented the three Utahns.

Residents of US territory American Samoa sue for citizenship

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2015 that questions of citizenship in U.S. territories are left to Congress. The government is likely to appeal Waddoups’ ruling, and depending on the outcome, the issue could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For now, American Samoans are U.S. citizens — at least in Utah.

“There’s thousands of American Samoans that live in Utah who yesterday were prohibited under federal law from being eligible to vote and today they are eligible to vote. If they want to vote they should go register and vote, and they should do that tomorrow before the case is appealed,” Weare said.

Susi Lafaele, co-founder of the Southern Utah Pacific Island Coalition in St. George, said her group will start a push to get American Samoans registered to vote. The group is a plaintiff in the case.

“It was definitely worth the wait. It was a long 13 months,” she said.

Lafaele said American Samoans won’t have to go through the expensive process of applying for citizenship but can be treated like everyone else while maintaining their culture and heritage.

Congress has decided on a per territory basis over the years to allow those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands to claim citizenship by birth. American Samoa is the only territory not granted birthright citizenship.

A U.S. territory since 1900, American Samoa is a cluster of islands 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. People born in the territory are labeled U.S. nationals.

Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the U.S., apply for certain government jobs or serve on a jury — despite paying U.S. taxes. They’re also issued special passports that read, “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

Waddoups ruled that the government must issue new passports to the three Utahns that do not disclaim their U.S. citizenship.

The government policy labeled Fitisemanu and Pale and Rosavita Tuli as second-class Americans, according to Equally American.

Fitisemanu has been rejected for jobs that list U.S. citizenship as a requirement. Prospective employers “need me to show them proof that I am a U.S. citizen, which I am not,” he told the Associated Press last year. Around elections, “I sit quietly at my cubicle, and don’t say a word, because I know I can’t vote,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

With colleagues, “it’s kind of like an office joke — ‘Hey! John is not a citizen, he’s an alien!’ I know they’re joking, but it still hurts. It feels like a slap in your face, that you’re born on U.S. soil, but you’re not recognized as a U.S. citizen.”

Rosavita Tuli had to obtain special permits and pay fees that wouldn’t apply to U.S. citizens when visiting her aging parents outside American Samoa, according to court documents.

Weare, who is in the Virgin Islands talking to lawyers about the case and related issues, said if Congress can grant people living in U.S. territories citizenship, it can also take it away.

“This is a very important ruling not just in American Samoa but also for the other territories,” he said.

Weare argued that because American Samoa is “in the United States,” and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” the three Utahns are entitled to birthright citizenship.

In his ruling, Waddoups relied on the Constitution and an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court decision that a child born in the U.S. to Chinese citizen parents is automatically an American citizen at birth.

“Interpreting the 14th Amendment in light of the English common-law, this court holds that American Samoa is within the dominion of the United States because it is a territory under the full sovereignty of the United States — that is, American Samoa is within the ‘full possession and exercise of the United States’ power,’” Waddoups wrote in his ruling.

“American Samoans owe permanent allegiance to the United States. They are therefore ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of the United States,’” he wrote. “Plaintiffs, having been born in the United States, and owing allegiance to the United States, are citizens by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.”

Government attorneys argued that the resolution rests with Congress, not the federal courts. Although Congress may provide for birthright citizenship by statute — as it has for Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands — it has not done so for American Samoa, according to court documents.

The three Utahns could only win the case if the Constitution requires birthright citizenship for anyone born in an unincorporated territory of the United States, the government said.

“Such a novel holding would be contrary to the decisions of every court of appeals to have considered the question, inconsistent with over a century of historical practice by all three branches of the United States government, and conflict with the strong objection of the local government of American Samoa,” government attorneys wrote. 

Amata Catherine Coleman Radewagen, commonly known as Aumua Amata, the American Samoa delegate to the U.S. House and the American Samoan government, argued against citizenship as intervenors in the lawsuit.

They contended that “imposition of citizenship by judicial fiat would fail to recognize American Samoa’s sovereignty and the importance of the fa’a Samoa” or “the Samoan way of life.” They also argued that “imposition of citizenship over American Samoan’s objections violates fundamental principles of self-determination.” 

“In response, this court is not imposing ‘citizenship by judicial fiat.’ The action is required by the mandate of the 14th Amendment as construed and applied by Supreme Court precedent,” Waddoups wrote.

“It is not this court’s role to weigh in on what effect, if any, a ruling in plaintiffs’ favor may have on fa’a Samoa,” the judge wrote. “This court must apply binding precedent.”