PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — A federal judge in Washington, D.C., is dismissing a lawsuit filed by five American Samoa residents who say people born in the unincorporated U.S. territory should automatically receive U.S. citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled this week that the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause doesn't apply to people born in American Samoa.
Immigration laws classify people born in American Samoa as U.S. nationals, but it's the only U.S. territory where U.S. citizenship is not a birthright.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Wynne Kelly argued that Congress has the power to determine the naturalization process for potential citizens, and the lawsuit was trying to sidestep that. Kelly represented the federal government and three U.S. State Department officials as defendants.
Eni Faleomavaega, the territory's non-voting delegate to the U.S. House, filed a brief last year arguing that Congress is the proper venue to decide citizenship, not the courts.
Leon said in his Wednesday ruling that he agreed with the government's argument that previous Supreme Court and federal court rulings as well as historical practice trumped the plaintiffs' assertions.
"Federal courts have held over and over again that unincorporated territories are not included within the citizenship clause, and this court sees no reason to do otherwise," Leon said.
"To date, Congress has not seen fit to bestow birthright citizenship upon American Samoa, and in accordance with the law, this court must and will respect that choice," he said.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory without the birthright of citizenship. Leon said people in the unincorporated territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands got birthright citizenship through various laws years after being acquired by the U.S. That wouldn't have been necessary if the Constitution granted citizenship to people in unincorporated territories, he said.
Charles Alailima, an attorney for the American Samoa residents and a California group who sued, said he was disappointed the judge did not focus on American Samoa's unique history and circumstances.
He said he will be discussing options for an appeal with his clients.
"We've known all along that the significant constitutional issues in this case would be decided on appeal, no matter which way the trial judge decided," he said.
The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, Leneuoti Tuaua, said he doesn't think the issue should be up to Congress.
"(So) long as American Samoa is U.S. soil, I continue to believe that the Constitution guarantees my family the right to citizenship," he said.
Faleomavaega said he agrees with the ruling but isn't opposed to citizenship for American Samoans.
"The decision should be made by the people and not by a court," he said. "After the people decide they desire citizenship, I can work with Congress on legislation to provide citizenship for persons born in American Samoa."