Monroe Tuia is an American Samoan living in Long Beach. The 52-year-old served in the U.S. Army in the early 80’s after leaving his home in American Samoa, a U.S. island territory of 55,000 people located in the South Pacific.
Although American Samoa has been a U.S territory for over a hundred years, being born there does not come with the same privileges as being born in the United States.
“I can’t vote,” said Tuia, who recently applied for citizenship but was denied.
American Samoans are considered U.S. nationals, which means they can legally reside in the United States and apply for a passport.
However, noncitizens often cannot become elected officials and may be barred from government jobs. Additionally, though American Samoa proportionally has some of the highest military recruitment of any U.S. state or territory, they are limited to how high they can go in the ranks.
“I’ve seen for many, many years the struggles our people go through to naturalize,” said Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Samoan Federation of America, a nonprofit based in Carson. “We’ve been loyal to this government for a hundred years. Lots of our children have died in the wars.”
There are 3,736 Samoans in Long Beach, just 0.8 percent of the population according to the 2010 Census. But they represent a vibrant faith-driven community, with multiple Samoan churches in the city and the Tafesilafa’i Festival occurring every year.
Despite a strong cultural presence, “I feel like I’m an outsider,” said Millie Malone, an American Samoan national who works at the Second Samoan Church.
Malo Faafoi, 58, sings with the church choir at The Samoan Church of Long Beach and, along with her daughter, is a noncitizen. She remembers what life was like back in her tropical village in Pago Pago, American Samoa.
“You don’t pay rent, you own the land … there was not a lot of crime,” Faafoi said. Now, she says, after living in Long Beach for three decades “I barely have enough to pay the rent.”
That poses an obstacle when it comes to applying for citizenship; she can’t afford the $680 application needed to begin the process.
Faafoi also deplores the fact that she cannot vote in a country she sees as her own.
“It’s like you don’t have a voice in the government,” she said.
David Cohen is a law expert who served under the second Bush administration. He says American Samoans’ inability to vote in U.S. affairs diminishes the community’s political power and “contributes to the community’s marginalization.”
Cohen filed a brief in the case of Tuaua v. United States, currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case centers on American Samoan’s demand for the right to vote.
“American Samoa is the only U.S. territory that does not have birthright citizenship and they responded to correct that,” Cohen said, referring to the fact that people from other U.S. territories, including Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico are considered U.S. citizens, though there are a variety of restrictions on voting in federal elections for these citizens.
The complex legal case includes questions about land ownership in American Samoa, where more than 90 percent of land is owned communally under a unique system. Some officials say this American Samoan way of life could be challenged if U.S. citizenship laws change and cause more encroachment on local government on the island territory.
According to the WeThePeople Project, an organization that does litigation and advocacy for people in U.S. territories, land ownership issues are separate legal questions from those about citizenship.
“I respect the concerns that people have about land, but people can have land rights and birth right citizenship,” Cohen said. “In the Northern Mariana Islands, people have birthright citizenship but they haven’t lost their land rights, so that wouldn’t be the case in American Samoa, either.”
Faletogo said that officials’ concerns that citizenship will change Samoan culture do not carry weight.
“They are so involved in that culture of fear they don’t even want to see the other side of the coin,” said Faletogo. “The islands are full of citizens that went through naturalization. It didn’t change anything. The chiefs still run Samoan culture.”
Faletogo, the president of the Samoan Federation of America, said the Tuaua v. United States case is based on constitutional matters.
“We are also looking at the 14th Amendment of the Constitution that says people born in the United States or its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States,” said Faletogo, whose nonprofit is also a plaintiff in the Tuaua case.
To counteract, the Obama Administration’s case is relying on the Insular Cases, which the Supreme Court issued in 1901 to deny certain constitutional rights to people in U.S. territories.
The Insular Cases have been considered racist for describing those in U.S. territories as “alien races, differing from us in religion, customs … and modes of thought.”
The Insular Cases were satirized by HBO comedy news host John Oliver Sunday. “It’s been 114 years. It’s like for over a century America’s computer has been saying ‘an update to your country is available’ and we’ve been clicking ‘remind me later’ again, again, and again,” Oliver said.
Though the Tuaua case was dismissed in a lower court and is currently in appeals, Faletogo is optimistic.
“I feel that we won already,” Faletogo said. “We’re going to take it all the way … take it to the Supreme Court if necessary because we believe in this.”
Though they are struggling with a legal loophole, American Samoans are in a favorable position compared to people arriving here from Samoa. Samoa is an independent country often known as Western Samoa and sometimes confused with the U.S. territory.
A Western Samoan undocumented man who attends the Second Samoan Church is currently one of those struggling for citizenship.
“I really want to be a citizen of this country but we have to go step by step,” said the 57-year-old man who did not want to use his name.
His application for citizenship was denied in 2008, and he overstayed his visa in 2011. “I live alone, by myself,” the man said.
From Long Beach, he still contacts his family back home by email and phone. He is planning on reapplying for citizenship “and if possible, [will] try to bring them all here.”