In a legal brief filed last week, the Obama administration took the position that citizenship is not a fundamental right of people born in unincorporated U.S. territories. The federal government maintains that Congress has the legislative discretion to grant privileges to those born in the territories as they see fit. The brief was filed in response to a lawsuit about citizenship rights for unincorporated territories that is pending before a federal appeals court. The lawsuit is Tuaua v. United States, and it is about American Samoa’s citizenship rights. While the situation in American Samoa is different than in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the outcome of the litigation could impact citizenship rights for Virgin Islands residents as well. The United States took ownership of the Virgin Islands in 1917, and citizenship was granted through an act of Congress in 1927. Congress has not made the same decision for American Samoa and residents born there are considered “non-citizen nationals.”
Neil Weare, lead counsel on the lawsuit, is president of We the People Project, an organization that works to achieve equal rights for residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
The federal government’s response to the Tuaua lawsuit says the law clearly states that citizenship for outlying possessions of the United States gives people born to non-U.S. citizen parents the classification of nationals, but not citizens. Changing that status is up to Congress, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said.
“The responsibility of Congress to govern this nation’s territories has long been recognized and respected by the Courts,” Machen said in the brief.
The federal government references a Virgin Islands case in making its defense.