Students and faculty gathered at a forum hosted by BYU Law’s chapter of the American Constitution Society and the Pacific Island Law Student Association, featuring Jeremy M. Christiansen. An attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, in Washington, DC, Christiansen spoke about the Fourteenth Amendment’s implications for citizenship in US territories in light of the historic ruling he won in December 2019, in federal court.
In March 2018, Christiansen filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Utah on behalf of three clients born in American Samoa who were seeking full US citizenship. The leading plaintiff, John Fitisemanu, was born in American Samoa in 1965 and has lived in Utah for over two decades. Fitisemanu works in the healthcare industry and pays federal, state, and local taxes. His children were educated in Utah public schools. However, as it states in his passport, Fitisemanu “is a United States national and not a United States citizen.” In order to explain how this came to be, Christiansen said “we need to take a glimpse into history.”
American Samoa, which consists of seven islands in the Pacific Ocean located 2,200 miles south of Hawaii, became an unincorporated territory of the United States by deed of cession in 1904. In giving up their sovereignty, the people of American Samoan “believed they were becoming US citizens, and they wanted this,” Christiansen said. However, they have been denied that privilege based on a section of US Code governing immigration and nationality, which states that persons “born in an outlying possession of the US on or after the date of formal acquisition” shall be “nationals, but not citizens of the United States at birth.” 8 U.S.C. § 1408 (2010).
Christiansen argues that this classification violates the Fourteenth Amendment and the principle of jus soli, a Latin term meaning “law of the soil.” According to jus soli, the citizenship of a person is determined by the place where they are born. “The United States has recognized birthright citizenship or jus soli, as it’s known around the world, since the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.” Christiansen said. He continued, “American Samoan people have served in very high numbers in the recent war and have made great sacrifices for our country, but they have been unable to run for office, serve on a jury, become police officers, or serve as officers in the US Armed Forces.”
The December 12, 2019 ruling by US District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down as unconstitutional the special status of American Samoans as non-citizen US nationals. He ruled that Utah residents who were born in American Samoa are entitled to birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment and ordered the government to issue the plaintiffs new passports reflecting that fact. On December 13, Waddoups stayed the ruling, pending appeal. The case now awaits review in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.