Supreme Court Declines to Rule on What Makes a U.S. Citizen

Pete Williams, NBC News, June 13, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to decide who becomes a US citizen at birth, in a case brought by a group of American Samoans.

Since 1900, American Samoa has been a territory of the United States. But unlike residents of other US territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, its residents are declared by Congress to be “non-citizen nationals.”

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Five people born there filed a lawsuit, claiming their non-citizen status violates a provision of the 14th Amendment that says “All persons born or naturalized in the States States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

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The Obama administration fought to defend the current non-citizen status. So did the government of American Samoa, which said in a Supreme Court brief that a change could threaten traditional Samoan cultural practices, such as large, extended families and communal land ownership.

The Justice Department said US territories are not “in the United States” within the meaning of the Constitution, so only Congress can confer citizenship, as it has for all territories except American Samoa.

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