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United States Citizenship, Part 2: Lawsuit Looks at Meaning of “Citizenship” for People Born in One U.S. Territory

German,_British,_American_warships_in_Apia_harbour,_Samoa_1899.jpgAn ongoing court battle illustrates the complex definition of “citizenship” in the United States. The general understanding of U.S. citizenship is that anyone born on U.S. soil is a citizen by birth, and that others can petition the government to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The question is more complicated, however, for people born in certain areas that are, technically, “U.S. soil.” People born in U.S. territories are not necessarily guaranteed citizenship by birth.

American Samoa is an “insular area” of the United States, meaning that it is not part of a state or federal district. The U.S. acquired it through a treaty with Germany in 1899. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) defines it as an “outlying possession of the United States.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(29). People born in American Samoa are classified as “nationals” of the United States, not citizens. 8 U.S.C. § 1408(1). The same is not the case for people born in certain other U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Five people born in American Samoa filed suit for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing in part that the INA’s denial of citizenship rights to the people of American Samoa violates the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint, finding that they had failed to state a claim on which it could grant relief. Tuatua v. United States, 951 F.Supp. 88 (D.D.C. 2013). The case is currently on appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its decision, the district court looked at the “Insular Cases,” a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, mostly from 1901, that have been heavily criticized for taking a very colonial outlook on U.S. insular territories. One case, which figures prominently into the government’s defense in Tuatua, used terms like “savages” and expressed doubt that Congress would allow citizens of annexed territory to become citizens automatically, “however foreign they may be to our habits, traditions and modes of life.” Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 279-80 (1901). A concurring opinion by Justice White noted the potential harm to new citizens by the sudden taxation that would come with citizenship, but also noted the risk of “grave detriment to the United States” from “the immediate bestowal of citizenship on those absolutely unfit to receive it.” Id. at 306.

The district court noted that Justice Brown, writing the opinion in Downes, stated in dicta that the Fourteenth Amendment did not necessarily confer citizenship on people born in insular territories. Tuatua, 951 F.Supp. at 97. He compared the language of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery “within the United States, or in any place subject to their jurisdiction,” to that of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which does not include the same language about places subject to the United States’ jurisdiction. Downes, 182 U.S. at 251.

The district court found that part of Downes persuasive and also noted that Congress has conferred citizenship on people born in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1402-1407. In dismissing the lawsuit, the court stated that it “must and will respect” Congress’ choice not “to bestow birthright citizenship upon American Samoa.” Tuatua, 951 F.Supp.2d at 98.

Samuel C. Berger practices immigration law in New York City and Northern New Jersey. We represent individuals who want to immigrate to this area, as well as people and businesses petitioning on an immigrant’s behalf. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our legal team, contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

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First Volume of USCIS’s Planned 12-Volume Policy Manual Addresses Citizenship and Naturalization, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, March 7, 2013
American Families Struggle with Foreign Bans on Intercountry Adoptions, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 21, 2013
Photo credit: By Alfred John Tattersall (1861-1951) (National Library of New Zealand) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.