Opinion: Trump should support equal citizenship for all Americans

Dennis Lennox

An overlooked peculiarity denying citizenship to a small number of Americans seems headed for the nation’s High Court to resolve after a ruling in a lower court.

Utah residents John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli, all originally from the territory of American Samoa, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Utah after receiving passports with an all-capital letter notation reading, “The bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

John Fitisemanu, an American Samoan and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the United States seeking full U.S. citizenship.

Americans born in American Samoa, which is geographically closer to New Zealand than Hawaii or the mainland, are expressly denied citizenship. By contrast, those born in the other four territories — Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — are citizens.

Instead, Americans from American Samoa hold U.S. nationality, a second-class status. This gives them fewer rights than the children of illegal immigrants born within the country. It also prevents American Samoans with full legal residency in any of the 50 states or District of Columbia from voting, running for elected office or serving on juries.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups, appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2008, ruled in favor of extending citizenship.

“This court is not imposing ‘citizenship by judicial fiat,’” Waddoups wrote in his ruling. “The action is required by the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment as construed and applied by Supreme Court precedent.”

Notwithstanding its second-class status, American Samoa, as with the other territories, elects a delegate to serve in the House of Representatives with limited voting privileges.

Amata Coleman Radewagen, a Republican from Pago Pago, is in her third term. She separately sits on the Republican National Committee.

American Samoa’s territorial government intervened in the case, arguing citizenship is a question for American Samoa to resolve internally.

Their position is, however, flawed as the federal government exercises exclusive sovereignty over the territory. It also conflicts with the position of the Republican National Committee, which supports equal citizenship for all Americans, regardless of whether they live in a state or territory.

This position might surprise observers as many wrongly believe the territories are strongly Democratic. Both parties are competitive on Guam, where three of the last five governors have been Republican. Puerto Rico’s congresswoman, Jenniffer González-Colón, is also a Republican. Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands was the first GOP governor to endorse President and then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses.  

The U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear a previous case involving American Samoa’s second-class status, will almost certainly be forced to decide the issue as the Utah case has created a split in the federal circuits.

Importantly, this is not a question of defending the law to avoid creating a precedent that can be used in cases involving undocumented immigrants. Rather, this involves arguing against equal citizenship for all Americans.

To do so would require the Trump administration to invoke court precedents far more repugnant than Plessy v. Ferguson. Beyond being fundamentally wrong, it also goes against the Republican Party’s stated position and conveys the absolute worst message to minority communities at a time of renewed outreach to diverse communities.

Trump should instruct his administration not to defend the indefensible.  

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. He was formerly executive director of the Republican Party of the U.S. Virgin Islands.