A Utah federal judge on Thursday declared that people born in the US territory of American Samoa are entitled to US citizenship. American Samoans were the only group of people barred from birthright citizenship—the principle under which those born in the United States automatically become American citizens.
American Samoans’ unique legal status has been disputed more than once in recent years. The Fourteenth Amendment confers citizenship to anyone born on US soil, whether in a state or a territory. But the federal government has also explicitly given citizenship by statute to the people of other US territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. It never did so for the approximately 55,000 American Samoans.
Judge Clark Waddoups ruled in favor of three American Samoan plaintiffs, dictating that they are indeed covered by the Constitution’s grant of birthright citizenship. In doing so, he rejected arguments that the US government has made under not just the Trump administration but also the Obama administration: that century-old racist caselaw precluded American Samoans from birthright citizenship. Those cases were decided in the early 20th century, when American politicians struggled with their desire to turn the US into a colonial power without welcoming nonwhite people into the country.
Waddoups’ decision is the first to conclude that these earlier cases do not allow the US government to deny citizenship to American Samoans. In 2015 and 2016, a similar legal effort failed after federal judges found that the government can deny citizenship to some people born in the US. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to take the case, showing little appetite for a fight over birthright citizenship. Perhaps it will now get a chance to reconsider.