The rights and status of people who live in the U.S. territories has always been cause for confusion and sometimes controversy. People born in four of the five U.S. territories -- Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas -- are recognized as U.S. citizens at birth based on congressional statute. Those born in American Samoa, however, are not.
The non-U.S. citizen status of those born in American Samoa is based in part on something called the "Insular Cases." These were rulings over a century ago that differentiated between the rights of people born in territories (including Alaska and Hawaii at the time) likely to become states and those unlikely to.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a case in which an appeals court ruled that a woman born in American Samoa could not get the U.S. citizenship she requested based on the clause in the U.S. Constitution that says that anyone born in the U.S. is a citizen. By not taking up the case, the court essentially upheld the appellate court ruling.
American Samoa Opposed Woman's Quest for Citizenship
The District of Columbia appeals court ruling was criticized by one law professor at D.C.'s American University for relying on the Insular Cases doctrine. He said that those cases "reflect an outdated, if not racist, approach to constitutional protections in the territories."
However, even the American Samoan government opposed the woman's claim of citizenship, arguing that if it were granted, it would create confusion in the territory's laws. One appeals court justice, in her opinion, noted that "appellants ask that we forcibly impose a compact of citizenship ... on a distinct and unincorporated territory of people, in the absence of evidence that a majority of the territory's inhabitants endorse such a tie and where the territory's democratically elected representatives actively oppose such a compact."
The Journey to Citizenship Can Be a Bumpy One
While most people pursue the more traditional path to gain U.S. citizenship, it can be a complicated, frustrating and lengthy process. Attorneys who specialize in immigration, naturalization and citizenship cases can help people through some of the roadblocks they may encounter along the way to becoming an American.
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