Many Americans may believe those born in US territories are granted birthright citizenship. Yet, that isn’t wholly accurate, as one territory isn’t afforded the privilege. On Monday, October 17, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) refused to hear a case involving three people born in American Samoa who said birthright US citizenship is a constitutional guarantee.
The three men, who live in Utah, sued the government. They argued a federal law that recognizes them only as US nationals but not citizens of the US at birth was unconstitutional and harmed them as unequal residents in society. The high court refused to reconsider so-called “Insular Cases” from the early 1900s following the Spanish-American War that considered how the government dealt with territories.
Are Residents of Territories US Citizens?
The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” There is no constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship for those from a US territory. Instead, it’s left to Congress to decide.
The Immigration and Nationality Act made those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas Islands citizens by birth. American Samoa is the only US unincorporated territory that was not offered the same right.
Instead, American Samoans are granted “US national” status. While they can hold a US passport, residents from the territory cannot vote for president, run for political office in the United States, serve on a jury, or work in some professions. Still, they can vote for a nonvoting member of Congress.
One of the three plaintiffs said he was born American, held a US passport, and paid his taxes. The three stated they could also not sponsor immigration visas for their families and couldn’t vote or work in law enforcement.
Supreme Court Sides With Lower Court
By refusing to hear the case, the SCOTUS left in place a lower court decision. A federal appeals court in Denver, Colorado, said Congress should decide the matter, not the federal courts. In addition, the Biden administration joined with American Samoa’s elected officials who opposed the lawsuit. The Samoan government alleged a favorable decision for the plaintiffs could disrupt their traditions.
Amata Coleman Radewagen, American Samoa’s US House delegate, said the SCOTUS decision not to hear the case preserved the territory’s “cultural priorities and right of self-determination.” She said Congress could address the Insular Cases separately.