The recent disqualification of a Hawaii House of Representatives candidate drew attention to the rights — or the lack of rights — of American Samoans living in the United States.
Sailau Timoteo, the only Republican candidate for House District 43, was disqualified when the Hawaii Attorney General’s office found out that she was not a U.S. citizen. She was born in American Samoa, and therefore a U.S. national.
John Robert Egan, a Honolulu-based immigration attorney, said Timoteo should have applied for U.S. citizenship before running for higher office.
People from American Samoa who wish to become citizens can start the process after living in the U.S. for just 90 days. They don’t need a green card, Egan said.
However, the process does carry a $725 price tag, and a U.S. national must also fill out a naturalization application as well as pass the same naturalization test that an immigrant from another country would need to take.
Neil Weare, a Washington, D.C., attorney, has argued in court that American Samoans shouldn’t have to go through any process to become citizens. Weare said they should be granted citizenship at birth since they are born in a U.S. territory.
“It seems awfully strange that someone with a U.S. passport must also apply for citizenship,” Weare said. “Someone born in American Samoa … shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to enjoy the rights of a U.S. citizen.”
People born in other U.S. territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands are naturalized U.S. citizens at birth.
But American Samoans are instead U.S. nationals, and U.S. law prohibits them from running for public office, voting outside of American Samoa and working in state and federal positions that require security access.
Children born in American Samoa become citizens at birth if their parents are already U.S. citizens. This was the case with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, whose father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard, was an American Samoan who moved to the states and became naturalized.
About 55,000 people live in American Samoa, while more than 184,000 American Samoans reside in the 50 states. Of those, more than 37,000 live in Hawaii, according to 2010 U.S. census data.
Early 20th century court precedents and treaties have created problems for American Samoans that persist today.
Weare is again in court, this time representing a Utah man fighting for American Samoans to become naturalized U.S. citizens at birth. It’s the same issue Weare argued in another case in 2015.
Weare argues that under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause — which states that anyone born in the jurisdiction of the U.S. is a citizen — American Samoans should be citizens, not just nationals.
He lost that case in 2015. A Washington, D.C., Circuit Court judge ruled that the amendment does not apply to American Samoans because, while they may pay U.S. taxes and reside in a U.S. territory, their political allegiances are not to the U.S, according to the judge’s written opinion.
Cultural differences arose in the case. Traditional Samoan land ownership in which matai, or chiefs, control the land and who lives where, was protected by a cession treaty in 1900 between the U.S. and Samoan chiefs.
Weare said American Samoans could maintain their culture while also becoming naturalized U.S. citizens at birth, citing the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. territory, as an example. He said that the issue of citizenship is separate from culture and land governance.
A 1976 treaty that established the commonwealth does separate the issues of citizenship and land ownership.
The treaty allowed the Northern Mariana islands to write their own constitution and granted them birthright citizenship. It left decisions of land governance up to the newly formed government.
In 1900, three Samoan island groups ceded their lands to the U.S. while the rest of the archipelago, which is modern Samoa, maintained its independence.
Those three groups, Tutuila, Aunuu and Manua, comprise today’s American Samoa. The chiefs signed the treaties under the presumption that their people would become U.S. citizens, according to an amicus brief filed by the Samoan Federation of America in the Utah District Court proceeding.
That proved to not be the case.
A major push for citizenship, called the Mau movement, lasted throughout the 1920s and 1930s. A U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1930 heard testimony from residents and chiefs of American Samoa in support of citizenship.
And while the senators were supportive, Henry Francis Bryan, American Samoa’s governor, was not.
Bryan described American Samoans as primitive and savage, “like grown-up, intelligent children who need kindly guidance.”
The senators didn’t buy Bryan’s racially charged statements, and wrote a report to Congress advocating that “the Samoans are capable of accepting and should receive full American citizenship.”
The U.S. Senate unanimously advanced legislation five times throughout the 1930s to grant American Samoans full citizenship, according to the Utah amicus brief. Each measure died in a House committee.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.