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Judge issues stay on American Samoan citizenship ruling

(Picture: John Fitisemanu, one of the plaintiffs in the case, provided by Equally American)

SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge in Utah who granted citizenship to people born in American Samoa is pushing the pause button on his own ruling.  He stayed it, pending a likely appeal from the government of American Samoa.

The plaintiffs in the case sued to be treated as American citizens, citing the citizenship clause under the 14th Amendment as their legal claim.  When Judge Clark Waddoups agreed, many Pacific Islanders in Utah were elated.

Susi Lafaele with the Southern Utah Pacific Islanders Coalition says, “It was a really landmark decision.  It was joyous.  You couldn’t believe it.”

American Samoa became a U.S. territory back in 1900, but, people born there are labeled as “U.S. nationals” and not citizens.  That means they can’t vote or run for office, even though they pay taxes.  Lafaele says one of the plaintiffs in the case, John Fitisemanu, registered to vote as quickly as he could after the ruling.  However, that window has closed, for now, after Judge Waddoups issued the stay.

The American Samoan government argued against citizenship.  Officials say the ruling interferes with their rights to determine their own status, as individuals and as a nation.  They also called the ruling “particularly unwelcome and inappropriate.”  However, Lafaele says their group doesn’t see it that way.

“We see it as a separate issue.  We see citizenship as a separate issue from land, culture and history,” she says.

The U.S. government also fought against the ruling.  Officials contend that citizenship is an issue that should be left to Congress.  However, attorney Neil Weir believes it’s a constitutional matter.

“The text and the history of the Constitution on this are really clear.  Regardless of one’s ideological perspective, this is a constitutional issue where the framers were very clear that [citizenship] applies throughout the United States,” Weir says.

He says people born in every other U.S. territory are immediately granted citizenship, however, “American Samoa is the only place in the United States where you can be born and not recognized as a citizen,” he says.

Some legal analysts expect the matter to eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

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