A Federal appellate court has ruled that individuals born in the U.S. territory of American Samoa are not automatically entitled to United States citizenship under the Constitution.
The 23-page opinion, written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, affirmed the decision of the district court.
In Tuaua vs. U.S., a group of individuals born in American Samoa argued that they are entitled to U.S. citizenship by birthright under the Citizenship Clause of the Constitution, which states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” People born in American Samoa are considered non-citizen U.S. nationals under U.S. statutory law.
The court’s analysis began with an examination of the plain meaning of the Citizenship Clause. Unable to conclude that American Samoa and similarly situated territories are encompassed within the Clause’s definition of “United States,” Judge Brown turned to the Insular Cases, a controversial series of Supreme Court cases from the early 1900’s that addressed how the Constitution applies to U.S. territories. The Insular Cases have have come under fire in recent years for their racist underpinnings. “Although some aspects of the Insular Cases’ analysis may now be deemed politically incorrect,”wrote Judge Brown, “the framework remains both applicable and of pragmatic use[.]”
Using the Insular Cases for guidance, Judge Brown dismissed the claim that birthright U.S. citizenship is a fundamental right for territorial residents. “Fundamental,” according to Judge Brown, “has a distinct and narrow meaning in the context of territorial rights.” Under the Insular framework, she notes, “fundamental” rights only cover the narrow subset of principles that are “integral to free and fair society.” Not included are “artificial, procedural or remedial rights that – justly revered though they may be – are nonetheless idiosyncratic to the American social compact or to the Anglo-American tradition of jurisprudence.”
Having rejected birthright U.S. citizenship as fundamental to residents of U.S. territories, Judge Brown turns to the crux of her opinion. “In sum,” she sets forth, “we must ask whether the circumstances are such that recognition of the right to birthright citizenship would provide “impractical and anomalous” as applied to American Samoa today.
Citing unique Samoan cultural traditions, such as communal land ownership, and the corresponding rejection of U.S. citizenship by American Samoan representatives concerned about enhanced scrutiny of their way of life under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, Judge Brown held that imposing citizenship on the American Samoan people would clearly be it anomalous.
“We can envision little that is more anomalous, under modern standards, than the forcible imposition of citizenship against the majoritarian will….To hold the contrary would be to mandate an irregular intrusion into the autonomy of Samoan democratic decision-making; an exercise of paternalism – if not overt cultural imperialism – offensive to the shared democratic traditions of the United States and modern American Samoa.”