There's a citizenship battle raging on a tiny island territory in the Pacific

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On an American territory some 5,000 miles from the mainland, locals are debating what it would mean to become American citizens—and whether that would threaten local laws.

Where exactly is American Samoa and how is it related to the rest of America?

The territory is made up of a group of five volcanic islands right in the middle of Polynesia. It's a five-hour flight from Honolulu, half way between Hawaii and New Zealand. There's a national park with tropical rainforest, volcanic rock, and Pacific island shoreline. It has been an "unincorporated territory" of the U.S. since 1900, meaning it's part of the U.S. but not entirely governed by the U.S. government.


So, what's the debate going on in American Samoa right now?

A group of American Samoans are pushing for citizenship rights on par with the rest of the America, despite having their request rejected by a D.C. circuit court of appeals earlier this month, the Pacific Daily News reports.

Currently, the 55,500 or so American Samoans are considered non-citizen nationals, meaning they don't have voting rights in federal elections and can't work in government jobs. They can apply for citizenship, but there's no guarantee they'll be approved.

What are the arguments for citizenship at birth?

For some young American Samoans moving to the mainland, it can be frustrating to have to go through a sometimes drawn-out citizenship process, and to be treated differently from other Americans. “My community is suffering because of this. The current situation is not right and it's not fair,” Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, head of the California-based Samoan Federation of America, told the Global Post.


Why is the American Samoan government, among others, against citizenship at birth?

American Samoa has elections to choose their local government, which has a large degree of autonomy over internal law and immigration on the islands. In part, this has to do with specific land ownership laws, which means that the vast majority of land (around 90 percent, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior) is communally owned by—aiga—or families. This land cannot legally be sold or rented to anyone "whose blood is less that one-half Samoan," the Department of the Interior tells us.


Some locals argue that automatic U.S. citizenship at birth could come with a loss of that autonomy and are concerned about protecting the islands' Polynesian cultural heritage.

The D.C. court's arguments in not granting citizenship at birth is that the country should have its own referendum and choose to gain citizenship democratically rather than having it imposed on them by a court, since there are varying opinions within the country about this. The fact that the country's elected government sided with the U.S. government was one factor the court considered important.


"Despite American Samoa’s lengthy relationship with the United States, the American Samoan people have not formed a collective consensus in favor of United States citizenship," the decision says.

What's next, since the D.C. circuit court of appeals ruled against citizenship at birth?


The Samoan Federation of America is one of the plaintiffs in the court case, and they're not ready to give up on their case, according to their lawyer. The case could find its way to the Supreme Court if a D.C. court of appeals decides opts against a review.