Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Carson group seeks birthright citizenship for American Samoans

by Take Two

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 03: Samoa fans waive their flags during the International Test Match between Fiji and Samoa at Sportingbet Stadium on May 3, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images) Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

American Samoa is unique among U.S. territories — people born there are not automatically granted U.S. citizenship. A group in Carson, which is home to some 60,000 Samoans, has been pushing to correct what they see as a historic wrong.

The Samoan Federation of America has asked the United States Supreme Court to overturn a law from the early 1900s that denies American Samoans birthright citizenship. The Supreme Court turned them down. 

David Savage, who covers the Supreme Court for the L.A. Times, has been watching the case and joined the show to discuss what's going on.

Interview Highlights

Why are the rights of American Samoans different from other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam?

Well this is a long history, it goes back about a century. In the late 1800s after ... the Spanish-American War, U.S. took control of the Philippines and a series of new territories. The question immediately arose: 'OK, what about the people in these new territories? Do they have full constitutional rights, or something less?" And essentially the Supreme court said in a series of cases that they do not have full rights and it's sort of up to Congress to decide, and somewhere along the line, most, Congress has granted full citizenship to people in Puerto Rico, to people in Guam, but American Samoa was sort of left out.

Why were the U.S. and the American Samoan government against this appeal to overturn the status of Samoans?

Well, I think for two different reasons. The solicitor general's office, part of the Obama administration, seemed to basically take the view and the briefs that for a very long time ... it's been sort of understood that congress can set different rules for people in the territories, and they basically said to the court, "You ought to stay out of this, leave it up to Congress. Congress could change this if it wants to, so just stand aside." Now, the Samoan government made a somewhat different argument, same bottom line — they said that "the people of Samoa are happy with this situation. We elect our own representatives on Samoa and we have a distinct national culture."

There is a sizeable American Samoan community here in Southern California. Are you hearing anything from them?

There are a number of people in Southern California who were very anxious for the court to take this... they did lose in two lower courts — a federal judge ruled against them, the court of appeals in Washington basically said we should leave this to Congress. They were hoping all along the Supreme Court would be ready to finally take up the question and decide, "Does the Constitution give citizenship to every person born on American soil," but as I say, unfortunately, it may have arrived at just the wrong time for the court to take up that kind of question.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

This post has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Philippines. KPCC regrets the error.

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