“American” Samoans Want US Citizenship

by Peter Spiro

“Non-citizen nationals” – a very small group of “Americans”. Anyone born in a state of the United States is a citizen under the 14th Amendment. Almost everyone else born in sovereign US territory (Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam) has citizenship at birth by statute. The only folks who don’t have citizenship at birth are those born in American Samoa and the Swains Islands, and they’re now challenging that fact in court (here is Ashby Jones’s account in the WSJ).

The status has its drawbacks. As highlighted in the complaint, as non-citizen nationals, Samoan Americans 1) can’t vote, even when resident in the US, 2) are ineligible for some public sector jobs (even some open to permanent resident aliens), and 3) can’t serve as officers in the US armed forces.

This is an anomaly — only 55,000 people live in American Samoa — and it’s something Congress should fix. There’s no apparent downside to extending citizenship to these people (who are as nationals permitted to immigrate to the US – even naturalize as citizens, through the ordinary process).

The lawsuit will bring some attention to the problem. In the meantime, it has little chance of success in the courts. The plaintiffs are up against a clear historical interpretation of the Citizenship Clause extending it to so-called incorporated territories only. To the extent that they’re making out an equal protection claim (why Guam and not us?) it comes up against Congress’ plenary powers over the territories. Not that any of this makes sense in a world in which “citizen” and “national” are otherwise basically synonymous.


11 Responses

  1. Being part of that world where citizen and national are synonyms, and out of pure simple curiosity, what is the difference between a citizen and a national under US Law?

  2. Fascinating. Israel is a country where citizen and national are not synonyms throughout its entirety. I would not be surprised to find it in other theocracies.

  3. Response…
    Do we really “live  in a world in which ‘citizen’ and ‘national’ are otherwise basically synonymous”? Mexican nationals, for instance, are people who by place of birth, parentage, marriage or naturalization may claim certain entitlements (such as residency in Mexico). However, they do not have full citizenship rights, such as the right to vote and stand for office, unless they successfully apply for citizenship. All citizens are nationals, in other words, but not all nationals are citizens–and, as Samoans have discovered, the distinction is still a meaningful one.

  4. Just so it is clear, in Israel not all nationals are citizens, and not all citizens are nationals. Nationals who are not citizens have greater rights than citizens who are not nationals.

  5. Mark Warren: I take the point, but the number of contexts in which it makes a difference is dwindling. This is an incident of equality norms, which are now pervasive (and arguably dictated by human rights). it used to be that “nationality” was a matter of international law, “citizenship” a matter of municipal law only. But their are very few non-citizen nationals in other countries, either (I’d be glad to have a reference for Mexican law – my impression is that this is a wide misunderstanding, and that in fact there is no difference between the two).

    Edwin: The Israel comparison came up earlier this week, before this suit was filed (see here): Samoa, the West Bank of the Pacific!

  6. Response…
    Peter, in Mexico at least, the distinction between citizenship and nationality is constitutionally enshrined. See articles 30, 34 and 37 of the Constitution of Mexico (distinguishing between nationals and citizens, defining the rights of citizens and outlining the separate grounds for loss of citizenship or nationality), available at:


  7. Mark, that’s an outdated version. See the current text here, which eliminates any meaningful distinction (as far as I can tell), but happy to be corrected.

  8. Response…
    Thanks for the updated version of the Mexican Constitution, Peter–it’s gratifying to learn that at least one country has resolved the citizen/national dichotomy.
    By the way, I don’t question that under international law the terms ‘nationality’ and ‘citizenship’ are treated as essentially synonymous, with ‘nationality’ being the chosen term of reference. My point, though, is that this distinction still exists under municipal law in some countries, and that this difference sometimes has international legal implications.
    Latvia and Estonia, for example, have large populations of residents deemed to be ‘non-citizen’ nationals, as (mostly Russian-speaking) citizens of the former USSR. They are, according to the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights “neither citizens, nor foreigners, nor stateless persons”, falling instead under a category “unknown in public international law.”
    I’m not sure that the international legal community has entirely come to grips yet with the extent to which some countries still do not treat the distinction as purely semantic, or that the practical problems caused by varying definitions of citizenship and nationality are necessarily dwindling. In a world of proliferating multiple nationality, successor States and large populations of nationals (however defined) residing abroad, the opposite conclusion may be just as likely.

  9. Thanks for the link, but I think you misunderstand. This is about inside the 1948 boundaries. Israel maintains a clear distinction between citizenship and nationality. It is codified into law with the law of return being the best known example of this distinction between nationality and citizenship. It is explicit in id cards as well.
    “A group of Jews and Arabs are fighting in the Israeli courts to be recognized as “Israelis,” a nationality currently denied them, in a case that officials fear may threaten the country’s self-declared status as a Jewish state.”
    “There are even two laws — the Law of Return for Jews and the Citizenship Law for Arabs — that determine how you belong to the state,” he said. “What kind of democracy divides its citizens into two kinds?””
    ““The State of Israel cannot recognize an ‘Israeli’ nation because it is the state of the ‘Jewish’ nation … it belongs to the Jews of Brooklyn, Budapest and Buenos Aires, even though these consider themselves as belonging to the American, Hungarian or Argentine nations.””
    “Ornan said any official could instantly tell if he was looking at the card of a Jew or Arab because the date of birth on the IDs of Jews was given according to the Hebrew calendar. In addition, the ID of an Arab, unlike a Jew, included the grandfather’s name.”
    “in 1970. Shimon Agranat, head of the high court at the time, ruled: “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people. …”

  10. I wonder how many samoan officers in the miltary or retired were illegally promoted to officers because this is the first time I saw an article stating they cannot become officers if they are  “non-citizen nationals”.

  11. Why is this issue such a big discussion? This is so unfair to the non-citizen nationals. US citizenships was given to soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. I served in the US Army for 22 years went to the Desert Storm era and was not even offer such honor.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.