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Court rejects appeal to grant citizenship to American Samoans

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday denied an appeal seeking to give people born in American Samoa American citizenship.

By leaving in place an appeals court decision, the court also passed up an invitation to overturn a series of decisions dating back to 1901 known as the Island cases, full of racist and anti-foreign rhetoric. Judge Neil Gorsuch had asked for the cases to be quashed in April.

But judges refused to appeal people born in American Samoa and living in Utah, who argued that a federal law declaring they were “nationals, but not citizens, of the United States at birth” is unconstitutional.

A Utah trial judge ruled in their favor, but the Denver federal appeals court said Congress, not the courts, should decide the citizenship issue. The appeals court also noted that American Samoa’s elected leaders opposed the trial for fear it would disrupt their cultural traditions.

“It’s a punch in the gut for the judges to leave in place a ruling that says I’m not equal to other Americans just because I was born in American territory,” said John Fitisemanu, the principal complainant, in a press release. “I was born on American soil, I have an American passport and I pay my taxes like everyone else. But because of a discriminatory federal law, I am not recognized as an American citizen.

American Samoa is the only unincorporated territory of the United States whose inhabitants are not American citizens by birth.

Instead, those born in the group of islands about 2,600 miles (4,184 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii are granted “US national” status, which means they are not cannot vote for the US President, run for office outside of American Samoa, or apply for certain jobs. The only federal election they can vote in is the race for American Samoa’s nonvoting seat in the United States House.

Ignoring the case “helps preserve American Samoa’s cultural priorities and right to self-determination,” said Amata Coleman Radewagen, a delegate to the American Samoa House of Representatives.

“Our people value American Samoa’s right to self-determination, with great love for the United States, as evidenced by our people’s high level of service to the country,” she said in a statement. “The question of island affairs can be dealt with by Congress, on the basis of self-determination by the people of each territory.”

Insular Affairs, born out of the Spanish-American War, concerned the administration of overseas territories.

In their conclusion that residents of the territories had some, but not all, rights under the Constitution, the judges wrote in racial and xenophobic terms. Citizenship could not automatically be granted to “those absolutely unfit to receive it”, wrote a judge.

That story prompted Gorsuch to comment on a case involving benefits denied to people living in Puerto Rico, decided in April. He wrote that the island cases were wrongly tried because they deprived residents of U.S. territories of certain constitutional rights.

“It is high time to recognize the seriousness of this error and admit what we know to be true: Island affairs have no basis in the Constitution and are instead based on racial stereotypes. They have no place in our law,” Gorsuch wrote.

The case stems from a lawsuit brought by three native American Samoans now living in Utah, where they are barred from voting or becoming police officers.

The Biden administration joined the government of American Samoa in asking the court to dismiss the appeal. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the administration’s chief counsel on the Supreme Court, wrote that “the government in no way relies on the indefensible and discredited aspects of the reasoning and rhetoric of island cases” that have been highlighted in the call.

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AP reporter Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.