The recent decision by the Biden administration to dissuade the Supreme Court from taking up the case concerning citizenship rights for American Samoa has reignited a debate about the enduring influence of historical racist precedents and their impact on contemporary legal proceedings. The case, known as Fitisemanu v. U.S., has emerged as a focal point for advocates seeking to challenge the century-old Insular Cases, which have long been criticized for their discriminatory language and exclusionary policies towards residents of U.S. territories.
Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar’s stance, articulated in a brief filed Monday, emphasized the need for congressional involvement in determining citizenship rights for individuals born in territories, citing the appeals court’s affirmation of this position. However, her argument has been met with strong resistance from advocates and civil rights groups, who argue that the refusal to confront the discriminatory legacy of the Insular Cases perpetuates systemic inequality and racial bias within the legal framework.
The Insular Cases, dating back to the early 20th century, have been widely denounced for employing racially charged rhetoric and imperialist ideologies to justify the denial of full constitutional protections, including birthright citizenship, to individuals from U.S. territories. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, in a notable concurring opinion last year, denounced the foundation of the Insular Cases as inherently flawed, citing their reliance on racial stereotypes and discriminatory practices that are antithetical to the principles of equality and justice.
The Fitisemanu case, originating from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, upheld the classification of individuals from American Samoa as U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens, highlighting the need for a broader reevaluation of the rights and privileges afforded to residents of the territory. Advocates, including Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, have expressed disappointment and dismay at the administration’s refusal to confront the historical injustices perpetuated by the Insular Cases, emphasizing the urgent need for a more inclusive and equitable approach to citizenship rights.
Weare’s sentiments are echoed by various advocacy groups, which have underscored the discriminatory treatment faced by individuals from American Samoa, who are often relegated to a second-class citizenship status, deprived of fundamental rights such as the ability to vote, serve on juries, or run for state and federal office. The petition filed by Equally American highlighted the paradoxical situation faced by American Samoans, who, despite their contributions to society and participation in the military, continue to be marginalized and denied the full rights granted to other U.S. citizens.
However, the issue of citizenship rights in American Samoa is not devoid of complexity. Some residents of the archipelago have emphasized the preservation of their unique political status and cultural heritage, known as “fa’a Samoa,” which has been safeguarded for over three thousand years. This traditional way of life, deeply rooted in the islands’ history and customs, represents a fundamental aspect of the Samoan identity, reflecting a commitment to preserving their cultural autonomy and distinct societal values.
The Biden administration’s emphasis on the role of Congress in determining citizenship rights has sparked contentious discussions about the need for comprehensive legislative reforms to address the inequalities perpetuated by the Insular Cases. Critics argue that the government’s reluctance to challenge the discriminatory legacies of the past contributes to the perpetuation of systemic injustices and undermines the principles of equality and fairness enshrined in the Constitution.
As the Supreme Court considers whether to take up the Fitisemanu case this fall, the outcome of this decision is expected to have far-reaching implications for the future of citizenship rights in American Samoa and the broader discourse on racial equality and justice within the United States. The case serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring struggle for equal rights and the need to confront historical injustices that continue to shape the contemporary legal landscape.