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Why can't American Samoans be citizens? Lawsuit says they should be

High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo of the Samoan Federation of America in Carson points to old photos from cricket games and other community events. He said sometimes he runs into people he hasn't seen for a while at an event - and learns they have left the neighborhood.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo of the Samoan Federation of America points to photos from community events. "We’re not aliens, we’re not citizens," he said. "We’re hanging in the middle."

A lawsuit filed in Utah Tuesday seeks citizenship for people born in American Samoa — a change that would be felt in Southern California's sizable Samoan community.

Under current law, American Samoa is the only one of the 16 U.S. territories whose residents aren't citizens. Instead, they're designated as "U.S. nationals," which the lawsuit calls "a stamp of inferior status that diminishes their standing in their communities and in our Nation as a whole."

The distinction between citizen and national is crucial, said attorney Neil Weare, whose organization Equally American brought the lawsuit. As non-citizens, those born in Samoa can't run for office, serve on a jury or vote in elections. 

"So they can't have a say in who their local mayor is, they don't get a vote for who the president is. At the same time, they're paying the same taxes as everyone and have to follow the same laws," Weare said.

Any changes to existing law would resonate in Southern California's Samoan community, where citizenship is an emotional issue.

"We’re not aliens, we’re not citizens, we’re hanging in the middle," High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Carson-based Samoan Federation of America, told KPCC. "We're citizens of nowhere."

The hundreds of dollars it costs to go through the naturalization process present an additional barrier to citizenship, he added.

The U.S. Census estimates there are about 27,000 people of Samoan descent in Southern California, more than half of them in Los Angeles County. Faletogo said Carson is the "central nerve" of the region's Samoan community.

U.S. nationals are also excluded from certain jobs open only to U.S. citizens. That's the case for John Fitisemanu, a plaintiff in the lawsuit whose job application to become a federal prison guard was rejected because he's not a citizen, Weare said. "It's something that affects people's bottom line and their pocketbook."

Weare hopes that the case might eventually reach the Supreme Court, which declined to hear a similar case in 2016. At the time, the Obama administration opposed granting Samoans citizenship through the courts, asserting that only Congress can grant that right.

The Samoan government also opposed the previous lawsuit, arguing that American Samoa elects its own representatives and has a distinct national culture.

"My island nation of American Samoa is against our effort here, because of their belief that it is going to interfere with their land and titles," Faletogo said in 2016. "We're trying to tell them that has nothing to do with the issue here."

American Samoa is an archipelago southwest of Hawaii. It's been a part of the United States since 1900.