The United States is made up of 50 states, the District of Columbia and 16 territories. Five of these territories are permanently inhabited.
They are the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. More than four million people live in them.
Except for American Samoa, people born in these territories automatically become U.S. citizens. They have many of the same rights as other U.S. citizens; however, they may not vote for president, and they do not pay federal taxes.
People who live in American Samoa are U.S. nationals but are not automatically given birthright citizenship. In other words, they do not automatically become U.S. citizens at birth.
American Samoans can apply to become naturalized citizens, but the process is lengthy and costly. In addition, they must live in the U.S. for three months before they can apply. Then they must stay in the U.S. for months or even years while their application is being processed. During that time, they may not hold a job that requires U.S. citizenship.
A debate about citizenship
Some American Samoans believe the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution already gives them citizenship. Section 1 of the Amendment says, in part:
“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.”
In 2013, some American Samoans used the amendment to argue for citizenship. They asked a federal district court judge to order that they be given birthright citizenship. But the judge refused.
They appealed the decision. But, a three-judge federal appeals court panel also refused to grant American Samoans birthright citizenship. The panel said only Congress, not the courts, had the power to make rules for territories.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that ruling. It did not say why. But the justices seemed to be saying a ruling the Supreme Court made in 1901 should not be changed.
At that time, the Supreme Court considered a series of cases about how the territories won by the United States in the Spanish-American War should be governed. It ruled 5-4 that people in those territories did not have full constitutional rights, even if they are U.S. citizens. The majority said only Congress -- not courts or even the Constitution -- could give people in the territories full rights.
Since then, Congress has given birthright citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Many writers, professors and constitutional law professors disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year not to hear the appeal. They said people should not be governed unless they can fully take part in the decisions of a government.
And many said the 1901 Supreme Court decision, which spoke about “savages” and “alien” and “uncivilized” races, is both embarrassing and racist. They believe American Samoans, like people born in the other four populated territories, should be given automatic citizenship.
What does American Samoa say?
The government of American Samoa disagreed with those who wanted birthright citizenship. It said it did not want any change to be made in the current policy. It said "the people of Samoa are happy with this situation.”
One reason the government of American Samoa is not seeking birthright U.S. citizenship is because of land ownership. It told the Supreme Court that if the U.S. Constitution applied fully to the territory, laws that stop non-Samoans from buying land could be threatened. Currently, more than 90 percent of the territory’s land is owned communally.
Some legal experts disagreed with the territorial government. They said land ownership rights were separate from citizenship rights.
In any case, the territorial government believes American Samoans should decide for themselves in a referendum whether they want to automatically become U.S. citizens. It says if they do, they should then ask Congress to change the law.
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
(You can learn more about the case here.)
VOA Correspondent Christopher Jones-Cruise reported this story from Washington and wrote it in VOA Special English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
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Words in This Story
inhabited – adj. occupied or lived in by someone or something
automatically – adv. always happening because of a rule, law, previous agreement, etc.
naturalize – v. to permit (someone who was born in a different country) to become a new citizen
panel – n. a small group of judges chosen from a larger court to hear a case and make a decision
communally – adj. shared or used by members of a group or community