HONOLULU — Growing up in American Samoa, Filipo Ilaoa’s neighbors were his cousins on a plot of land full of banana and breadfruit trees shared by his extended family and overseen by a chief elected by his relatives.
He worries a federal judge’s recent ruling in Utah saying those born in the U.S. territory should be recognized as U.S. citizens could threaten “fa’a Samoa,” the Samoan way of life, which includes cultural traditions like prayer curfews, communal living and a belief that the islands’ lands should stay in Samoan family hands.
“Basically, what it comes down to is freedom — the freedom to own communal land,” said Ilaoa, 66, a retired Marine Corps sergeant major now living in Hawaii.
In December, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups sided with three people from American Samoa who live in Utah and sued to be recognized as citizens. The judge ruled the Utah residents are entitled to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. He then put his ruling on hold pending appeal.
The U.S. government, which argues automatic citizenship should be a decision for Congress, filed an appeal Friday. The American Samoa government is also expected to appeal and has until Monday to do so.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory where residents have no birthright claim to citizenship. Instead, those born in the cluster of islands some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii are granted “U.S. national” status, meaning they can’t vote for U.S. president, run for office outside American Samoa or apply for certain jobs. The only federal election they can cast a vote in is the race for American Samoa’s nonvoting U.S. House seat.
Supporters of automatic citizenship say it would particularly benefit the estimated 150,000 to 160,000 nationals who live in the states, largely concentrated in California, Hawaii, Washington, Utah and Alaska.
The territory’s population is only about 55,000. Yet many there say they’re happy being nationals and worry birthright citizenship would influence customs, like their unique land ownership system.
“Right now the government of the United States doesn’t own a square inch of land in American Samoa,” said Ilaoa, who left his village of Leone at 18 to join the Marine Corps and later became a citizen to qualify for military jobs that require top-secret clearance. “We build what we want. Any time we want.”
Most property in American Samoa is owned communally among families. Within villages, there are communal lands where extended families live together. Family members select chiefs, or matai, to regulate village life and oversee the land.
Samoan law restricts the sale of most land to anyone with less than 50% Samoan ancestry.
“There are still blood quantum racial restrictions on the ownership and alienation of land,” said Michael Williams, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the American Samoa government in challenging the lawsuit. “And to say that U.S. citizens can’t own land because of racial restrictions, that’s the sort of thing that one would expect would come under scrutiny from the courts.”
Some are uncomfortable with a faraway judge making decisions about their relationship with the United States, Williams said.
“Everybody else will come and impose their right in the village that is perfectly designed to fit every family’s need that occupies that land,” said Tisa Fa’amuli, who owns Tisa’s Barefoot Bar in the village of Alega on Tutuila, the largest island in the American Samoa archipelago.
“At the end of the day, we are so proud of who we are,” she said. “We love who we are, and we don’t want to change that.”
There also are concerns that automatic citizenship would disrupt religious norms such as prayer curfews that are enforced by local leaders in a territory where 100% of Samoans report being Christian, according to the American Samoa government. Imposing “blanket adult curfews to United States citizens could be unconstitutional under existing case law,” American Samoa said in a court filing opposing the lawsuit.
A path toward U.S. citizenship exists for those who want it. But some say it’s costly and cumbersome.
Roy J.D. Hall Jr., who lives in the village of Viatogi, says he became a citizen more than 50 years ago, when it was easier. As an attorney, he helps others obtain citizenship, which he said now requires more documents and a $750 fee.
Such roadblocks are unfair, he said: “Why should those that live in the United States be denied citizenship and all the benefits that come with it?”
Sailau Timoteo was running for Hawaii’s state House in 2018 when she learned she wasn’t eligible for the race because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
She said at the time she didn’t realize being born in American Samoa gave her “second-class status.”
Bonnelley Pa’uulu opted to remain a national, even though her Army soldier husband became a citizen. Pa’uulu is acting director of the American Samoa government’s office in Hawaii, where she works with Ilaoa.
She doesn’t feel like she’s missing out any anything as a national — she’s able to travel freely.
Maintaining the land ownership structure is important to Pa’uulu, in part because she plans to return someday. The land “ties you back to your family name, and it’s like where you belong,” she said. “And if I do return, the land is still there, hopefully.”
American Samoa’s traditional leaders voluntarily ceded sovereignty to the United States government in 1900.
The territory’s customs and cultures evolve, and there are laws protecting them, said Charles Ala’ilima, one of the attorneys representing the three who want citizenship.
“The custom and culture of Samoa 200 years ago did not include Christianity,” he said. “But guess what? Nobody would say now that the custom and culture of Samoa does not include Christianity.”
From a legal perspective, citizenship won’t lead to the downfall of American Samoa’s land ownership system, said Rose Cuison-Villazor, an expert in immigration, citizenship and property law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.
She is from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory that grants birthright citizenship, where U.S. courts have upheld a land ownership requirement of 25% Northern Marianas blood.
“Citizenship would not have the domino effect people are worried about,” said Sean Morrison, a former American Samoa assistant attorney general now living in New Orleans. “I think the biggest worry is ... you don’t know what a future judge might say.”
Before the ruling, Amata Coleman Radewagen, American Samoa’s U.S. House delegate, introduced a bill to make citizenship for American Samoans easier. The bill would allow nationals to become citizens without having to leave American Samoa, as is currently required. American Samoans also would no longer have to take a citizenship test, under her bill, and there would be a hardship waiver for application fees.
The bill is pending in the Natural Resources Committee with a likely hearing in the year ahead, said her spokesman, Joel Hannahs.