The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a case that would have expanded the country’s birthright citizenship policy to American Samoa.
The justices did not give reasons for refusing to hear the case, which touched on thorny issues of American territorial expansion around the turn of the 20th century.
A series of high court rulings known as the Insular Cases had concluded that some of the country’s new additions were likely to become states and should be treated one way, while others were likely to remain as possessions. Those were “inhabited by alien races, different from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought,” the court wrote.
The American Samoans who’d asked the justices to take up their case live in the continental U.S. They said it was time to overturn the Insular Cases and strike down a law Congress passed that blocks the American Samoans from automatic citizenship.
“The subordinate, inferior non-citizen national status relegates American Samoans to second-class participation in the Republic,” the plaintiffs wrote in their petition asking the high court to take the case.
They had lost at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the majority ruled that the insular cases did block them.
Some legal scholars have labeled the Insular Cases an ongoing manifestation of racism.
But the American Samoan government, which urged the high court to reject the new challenge, said the Insular Cases preserve the territory’s “fa’a Samoa,” or traditional way of life.
“From the moment the traditional leaders of the American Samoan people voluntarily ceded sovereignty over their islands to the United States, persons born in American Samoa have been born as United States nationals, but not United States citizens,” the territorial government told the justices. “As the federal government and the federal courts have recognized, that unique status distinguishes American Samoa from the fifty States and the other territories, and contributes to its ability to maintain its traditional cultural practices.”
Birthright citizenship is the policy derived from the 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and [who are] subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”
It is usually debated in the context of illegal immigrant mothers, whose children earn automatic citizenship if they are delivered on U.S. soil.
But the policy has also been at issue in the five territories the U.S. holds. In addition to American Samoa, they are Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Only American Samoa does not earn birthright citizenship. The others have all been granted it through legislation from Congress.
Residents of American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals and can travel freely within the U.S. But that means they cannot hold some jobs that require U.S. citizenship, and if they move to a state they don’t automatically acquire the right to vote. They must naturalize as citizens.
In its briefs, the government of American Samoa said the plaintiffs, who do live in the continental U.S., are free to seek citizenship on their own, but should not force it on all island residents.
There are roughly 50,000 residents of American Samoa, not including those who have moved elsewhere in the U.S. and retain their status as nationals but not citizens.
The case is Fitisemanu v. U.S.