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Residents of American Samoa are suing the US government for citizenship

American Samoa's flagbearer Tanumafili Malietoa Jungblut leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 5 at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Residents of American Samoa have filed a lawsuit in Utah, demanding birthright citizenship. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

Residents of American Samoa have filed a lawsuit in Utah, demanding birthright citizenship. Currently, American Samoans have to apply for naturalized citizenship, the same way a foreign-born person would.

Neil Weare, the lead attorney on this lawsuit, argues that this is unfair: "If someone has a birth certificate showing they were born on U.S. soil, they shouldn't have to jump through any more hoops to be recognized as a U.S. citizen."

The lawsuit argues that residents of American Samoa should be eligible for full citizenship under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, just like the residents of other U.S. territories.

In 2016, a similar lawsuit filed by Weare stalled when the Supreme Court refused to weigh in on a lower court’s ruling against the case. If the plaintiffs win the case in Utah, the Supreme Court would likely have to review the case and decide which of the conflicting rulings will stand.

Here’s what you need to know

In addition to the 50 states, the United States has five territories: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. While none of the five territories have all the rights granted to states, residents of the other four are given U.S. citizenship at birth. American Samoa is the only territory where residents are not automatically granted citizenship.

Like residents of the other four territories, American Samoans pay taxes and are recognized as U.S. nationals. American Samoa also sends a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.  However, without full citizenship, they are not permitted to vote, run for political office, apply for certain government jobs, or to sponsor relatives immigrating to the United States.

The lead plaintiff in this lawsuit is John Fitisemanu, who was born in American Samoa but currently lives in Utah. Fitisemanu said he has been turned down from jobs that "need me to show them proof that I am a U.S. citizen, which I am not."

American Samoan passports state: “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”

Where is American Samoa?

American Samoa is a collection of five volcanic islands and two coral atolls in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. The entire land area of all seven is barely larger than that of Washington, D.C.  In 2017, the islands had an estimated population of 51,504.

One last thing…
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