Supreme Court must overturn racist rulings that denied rights to 3.6 million Americans

Three Samoan American residents of Utah and a Samoan non-profit organization on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to hear their case challenging the validity of 100-year-old racist court precedents that continue to deny them equal rights as US citizens.

The Fitisemanu v. United States stems from the special relationship between the United States and its five overseas territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The 3.6 million inhabitants of these territories owe allegiance to the American government but do not have the same rights before the law.

This denial of equal rights is even more acute for American Samoans. While residents of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are officially U.S. citizens and can access these rights by moving to one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia, American Samoans are categorized as “US nationals”. “This means that American Samoans born in American Samoa are not treated as citizens, even if they move to a US state.

The plaintiffs allege a range of harms, pointing to the rights denied to American Samoa-born nationals living in the United States. John Fitisemanu was denied the right to vote. Pale Tuli can’t get the job he wants, as a policeman. And Rosavita Tuli is unable to sponsor immigrant family members who wish to move to the United States

“I was born on American soil, I have an American passport and I pay thousands of dollars in taxes every year to the federal government,” Fitisemanu said in a statement. “But on the basis of a discriminatory federal law, I am denied recognition as an American citizen. As a result, I am a citizen of nowhere, unable to vote in state, federal, or even local elections. This is not only wrong, it is unconstitutional.

The denial of equal rights to territorial residents stems from a series of Supreme Court cases, known as the Insular cases, which created a legal framework for territorial conquests by the United States during the Spanish–American War. . The court classified these overseas possessions as “unincorporated territories” not intended for a state, and it denied equal rights to their residents because they were “savage tribes” and “aliens” and “uncivilized race”.[s]who were “absolutely unfit to receive them”.

Plaintiffs argue that the original understanding of the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship by birthright to persons “born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” extended that right to anyone born in the United States. territories controlled by the United States. In making this argument, the petitioners note that birthright citizenship has never been directly challenged in the Island cases.

This argument was endorsed by Judge Clark Waddoups of the U.S. District Court in Utah in a 2019 decision sided with American Samoan plaintiffs. This decision concluded that the legal precedent that mattered in this case was the 1898 decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, which asserted the birthright citizenship of anyone born on American soil, and “did not relate” to any of the decisions in the Insular case.

Associate Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor (left) and Neil Gorsuch called on the court to reconsider and overturn the island cases, which limited the rights of people from US territories.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

But that federal court ruling was overturned in 2021 by a panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that relied solely on the island cases. Although the majority decision of the appeals court noted the “racist” and “unsavory” history of the island cases, it ruled that they applied here and that the US District Court “erred relying on Wong Kim’s Ark.” And even though the Island cases never addressed birthright citizenship, the court ruled that these cases “can be rerouted.”

The request in Fitisemanu v. United States is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider and overturn the island cases because the appeals court’s decision expands them beyond their original context and subject matter while putting them in direct conflict with precedents granting citizenship by birthright.

The request for the Supreme Court to take up this case follows the opinions issued by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor last week clearly declaring their desire to overthrow island affairs.

In a concurring opinion in United States against Vaello-Madero, published on April 21, Gorsuch said it was “high time to acknowledge the seriousness of this error and admit what we know to be true: Island affairs have no basis in the Constitution and instead rest on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.

Gorsuch cited the appeals court’s decision in the Fitisemanu case as one of the main reasons the Supreme Court needs to reconsider the island cases, noting that it is part of “recent attempts” by lower courts “to redirect island affairs”. [by] simply drape[ing] the worst of their logic in a new light.

Noting his complete agreement with Gorsuch’s argument to quash the island affairs, Sotomayor called them “both heinous and wrong” in a CONTESTATION issued in the Vaello Madero Case.

The Fitisemanu case is being contested by the Department of Justice, which relied on the Island Cases in its arguments, and the government of American Samoa, which says quashing the Island Cases would upset the traditional practices of the Samoan people.

Despite a promise to advance racial justice and equality, the Biden administration’s Justice Department continues to rely on island cases in arguments in court. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Fitisemanu case and a number of civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, the Hispanic Federation and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, have appeal to the administration to stop relying on Island cases in its briefs and arguments in court.

“Who is an American citizen under the Constitution is a question fundamental to our democracy, and the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to be answered once and for all,” Neil Weare, attorney for Fitisemanu, said in a statement. “The fact that in 2022 there remains uncertainty as to whether persons born in U.S. territories are ‘born…in the United States’ for the purposes of the citizenship clause and whether racist island affairs remain good law underscores why the Supreme Court must finally answer these questions. ”


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