Amnesty in American Samoa: Register First, Write the Law Later

By David North on January 20, 2014

They are going to have an amnesty for illegal aliens in American Samoa and it will be interesting to watch.

The first thing to know is that this is outside the mainland's immigration law; Washington will have nothing to do with it and it probably will not create any new U.S. citizens (though details are murky in the usual islands way).

Now that the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (which is elsewhere in the Pacific) is covered by federal law, American Samoa is the only U.S. flag jurisdiction that makes up its own immigration rules. Most people living there are U.S. nationals, rather than U.S. citizens. There are virtually no U.S. nationals from anywhere else.

Nationals can become citizens by living in another U.S. jurisdiction (other than Samoa) and applying for it; they cannot convert to citizenship while in Samoa.

The second important variable is ethnicity. Most illegal aliens in American Samoa are also Samoans, from the independent nation of Samoa (it used to be called Western Samoa), a few miles away. Often the illegals are blood relatives of American Samoans. Everyone speaks the same language and looks alike, but the other Samoa is less thoroughly subsidized than our Samoa, so it is poorer.

The division of the Samoas — and this sounds like a bit of African colonial history — was worked out between then Imperial Germany (they got the more populous western islands) and the McKinley administration more than 110 years ago. We got the smaller set of eastern islands, and both countries got coaling stations (to fuel naval ships), which were highly valued in those days.

So an amnesty in American Samoa is no big deal to the locals. Further, from what I can gather, the enforcement of American Samoan immigration law is even more casual than the enforcement here on the mainland. (I spent a couple of years with the tiny unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior that deals with the islands and was sent to all of them, except Samoa, sadly.)

The third variable is that American Samoa is run more like a third-world nation than anything else. For example, the upper house of the territorial legislature, the Fono, is the only legislative body under the U.S. flag that is not elected by the people. The members are high chiefs, all male, chosen by other chiefs, mostly male. The governor and the members of the lower house, however, are elected by popular vote.

Given this overall setting you might expect that a Samoan amnesty would be different from an American one, and you would be right.

For one thing, there appears to be no controversy. The media coverage in the Samoa News (the English language daily in the capital of Pago Pago) and over Radio New Zealand contains no hints of public debate; the whole thing is handled like a change in schedule for income tax filings or something equally bland.

Secondly, there is the timing. According to media accounts, the government has announced that illegal aliens are to register with the local authorities in the period February 18 through March 14. They have been assured that by registering they run no danger of deportation.

Then, "upon completion of the registration the [government's] amnesty team will gather all the numbers and prepare a draft of the amendment to the law that's needed and will then seek Fono approval ... the amendment will ask the Fono [to] expand the quota limit for this fiscal year only — and those expansions will be based specifically on the count of those who have already registered," according to Samoa News.

That's an interesting approach, register first and then change the law later. Most amnesties around the world, including our own IRCA experience more than 25 years ago, took things in the reverse order.

The offer is not a blank check, the government says, because to be eligible, one has to have lived in American Samoa since June 30, 2013, and not be a criminal (though this was not defined further). There seem to be no other standards.

The language about a one-time expansion of the "quota limit" suggests that those admitted will obtain legal status, but will not be put on the road to national or citizen status, as there is nothing in the Samoan law that contemplates a naturalization (or nationalization) process for local immigrants. The only way, under the American Samoa law, to become a U.S. national is to be born into that status.

The news accounts seem to imply that the Fono will do what is asked; there is no suggestion that either body within the legislature will object in any way to the proposal.

As to numbers, the last time that American Samoa had an amnesty, presumably on roughly similar terms, it attracted some 3,000 customers. That was in 1998, when the total population of our Samoa was a little under 60,000. If the same proportion of the population of the mainland sought amnesty right now we would have close to 16 million applicants!

The media suggests that there will be more applying in American Samoa this year than in the earlier program.

I regard the forthcoming Samoan amnesty as an illustration — in miniature — of how such things can work in practice, but certainly not as a role model for mainland policy.