Why Don’t the Biden Administration and the American Samoa Establishment Want Citizenship for Samoans — They Are U.S. Nationals

By David North on September 1, 2022

[Update, October 18, 2022: The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the American Samoans as U.S. Nationals, not U.S. citizens.]

A policy-making puzzle has emerged from a court case regarding the citizenship status of American Samoans. Some individual Samoans have sued seeking citizenship; they are currently (alone of the populations under the U.S. flag) U.S. nationals, not citizens. The case is on its way toward, if not to, the U.S. Supreme Court, as the Washington Post has reported.

Being a national or a citizen while living in American Samoa is a meaningless difference, but should a national live in the U.S. there is a lot of difference. Nationals are free to move to the States and do not need a visa or a work permit, but they cannot vote or hold some public offices, nor can they use the immigration law to bring in relatives. They are eligible for naturalization, but few opt to use that opportunity.

As background, American Samoa has its own immigration law, the only territory that does. A further complication is that there is also a totally separate nation, once a German colony and later a New Zealand one, that used to be called Western Samoa, and is now called Samoa. It has nothing to do with this issue. It is close to and much more populous than our Samoa.

The puzzle is that the Biden administration — routinely pro-ethnic-minority and pro-immigration — is opposed to a court move to make nationals into citizens, as is the establishment in American Samoa. Why are governments in Washington and Pago Pago (pronounced pan-go pan-go) opposed to more rights for this small and totally non-controversial population? (There are about 100,000 of them split between the islands and the states.)

The establishment in American Samoa is a bi-partisan or non-partisan group. Those opposed to ending the national status in the courts include the Republican delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and the largely Democratic territorial regime, consisting of an elected governor, a popularly elected lower house, and a chief-elected upper house. (Yes, there is a political entity under the U.S. flag that resembles Britain’s House of Lords.)

Delegate Amata Radewagen (R-American Samoa) argues “that to ‘force’ birthright citizenship would disrupt the status American Samoans have as individuals born as U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens”, a unique status they said distinguishes them from other U.S. states and territories and keeps their “fa'a Samoa” (Samoan way of life) alive.

Something like a third of the world’s population, and all those illegal aliens at the U.S. southern border, would be delighted to have U.S. citizenship “forced” upon them.

In Washington, it is the Biden administration, through a brief filed earlier this week by Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, offering quite different reasons, mostly legalistic not cultural, for not hearing the case. She thinks that Congress should make these decisions, not the courts.

There is yet another odd quirk to the case. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, has vigorously opposed the century-old set of “insular cases” as racist. When the Supreme Court was making these decisions, Congress decided that residents of American Samoa should become nationals and not citizens. The solicitor general does not think that the instant case should be used to undo the “insular cases”. As a non-lawyer I cannot quite follow that argument.

What is clear is that this birthright citizenship case involves strange bedfellows and strange reasonings; it will be interesting to see if the court opts to hear it.