What Can America Learn from the Immigration Rules of American Samoa?

By David North on November 21, 2023

Although it is not generally recognized, there are two sets of immigration systems under the U.S. flag: the generally recognized Mainland program which has turned loosey-goosey in recent years and that covers 99.9 percent of us, and the American Samoa system which governs the remaining 0.1 percent. The latter arrangement is as tight as a drum.

American Samoa (population about 50,000), alone among our jurisdictions, has its own immigration laws and has since we acquired it in the days of William McKinley. Its people are U.S. nationals, not U.S. citizens. (The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. territory in the Pacific, used to have its own system, but this ended during Bush II.)

The two systems are completely different from one another. In American Samoa there is no concept of legal immigration that converts an alien to a national (or a citizen.) There are no ceilings on immigration (as the Mainland has) because there is no immigration. There is no naturalization process. The three classes of the population are: U.S. nationals, temporary residents, and illegal aliens.

When American Samoa had an amnesty nine years ago, as we reported at the time, it did not put the newly legalized on the path to full citizenship or national status; it simply converted them into legal temporary residents.

While the Mainland rules allow for the conversion of U.S. nationals to U.S. citizens, and the total access of nationals to our shores, the reverse is not true. U.S. citizens have all the rights of, say, Ivory Coast citizens in American Samoa, i.e., none.

If a U.S. citizen wants to go to American Samoa for more than one month, she can do so under two conditions: she either has a U.S. passport and an airline ticket showing paid passage to another nation, or she has a job in American Samoa. An American citizen who wants to retire there or conceivably study at the (low-ranking) junior college there is simply out of luck. A national wanting to study or retire to the U.S. Mainland is free to do so without filling out any papers.

Although I have paid attention to American Samoa for some time (I was on the staff of the U.S. Department of the Interior bureau that deals with the islands for two years a generation ago), I have never seen a comparative analysis of how American Samoa treats U.S. citizens as opposed to how the U.S. treats nationals from American Samoa. Unlike the many situations in which the colonial power treats the colony’s people badly, we have a situation in which the colony treats the imperial power’s people shabbily. Odd.

Now American Samoa is not one of those places where all the rules are followed all the time, and the rigid regulations there may be softened by island practice, but the rules themselves are remarkably restrictionist. There is a “Samoa for Samoans” concept here which is totally different from our Mainland thought process.

There has been an effort, supported by some in the Mainland left and some Samoans in Hawaii and on the Mainland, to eliminate the U.S. nationals category, and make all nationals U.S. citizens. There have been court cases along these lines, always losing and always staunchly opposed by the government in the American Samoa capital of Pago Pago. That opposition used to puzzle me, but no longer; were the concept of nationals to be discarded, so would ability of the local government to exclude non-Samoans from settling in that territory.

The American Samoa immigration system, unlike that of the Mainland, is not under attack; there is no danger of over-population created by masses of international migrants, or even migrants from the Mainland. Maybe our people in Washington should look to the migration policy makers in Pago Pago for some inspiration on controlling our borders.

Incidentally, in addition to our Samoa there is the more populous and nearby independent nation of Samoa, formerly a German, then a New Zealand, colony, and formerly called Western Samoa. It has nothing to do with the national/citizen distinction we have been discussing. Western Samoa has a voting seat in the General Assembly of the United Nations; our Samoa has a non-voting seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Further, while my spell check accepts both “Samoa”, and “Apia”, the capital of their Samoa, it chokes on “Pago Pago”, the capital of our Samoa. It accepts “Pago”, but not “Pago Pago”.