AMERICAN SAMOA LOOKS AT POLITICAL STATUS OPTIONS

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PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, November 27) - Although sparsely attended, last Wednesday's Future Political Status Study Commission hearing convened for nearly two hours as the commissioners shared their personal views of what they had observed on their fact finding trips abroad and what they believed to be options for the future political state of American Samoa.

Vice Chairman Sen. Tuaolo Vaivao Manaia personally favors the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands' (Saipan) form of government which involves a covenant with the United States granting the natives US citizenship status but calling for the protection of their lands, meaning that only the natives can buy and control the lands there.

Tuaolo's main concern is what he calls the uncontrolled influx of foreign immigrants, Samoa citizens not included, migrating to the territory. Samoa citizens he said, "somewhere down the line, are connected to us somehow through the same blood, skin, and bones."

"As long as we are under the United States, we cannot do anything to stop this influx of immigrants," Tuaolo explained, adding that we cannot make our own immigration laws because American Samoa is under the umbrella of the United States.

Tuaolo worries if we can handle the changes brought about by the rapidly growing number of immigrants. "This is the one issue that has me very concerned for the future," he said, referring to related consequences like overcrowded classrooms and a rapidly increasing population which will result in the government having to build new classrooms every year, besides seeking funding sources to cover costs associated with the drastic changes.

"I firmly agree that changes need to be made," Tuaolo said. "And while our forefathers made decisions involving our political state that were right and fitting at the time, times have changed and we need to recognize this."

"Do we want to stay this way for another 106 years?" he asked. "We finally have the power to vote for our own governor but even then, we still don't have that much of a say because our Chief Justice is still appointed from the Department of Interior."

The two ministers who attended Wednesday's hearing agreed with Tuaolo and urged that hospital fees be raised for foreigners having babies in the territory and to send foreign pregnant women back to their homeland to deliver their babies before returning to the territory.

"Nobody wants to have babies in the United States because of the high costs of medical care and maybe this is what we need to do to decrease the number of foreign babies being born here," Rev. Luao said.

Commission member Associate Judge Lefiti Atiulagi Pese opted for the status quo.

"We will remain free and safe under the power and protection of the US," he said. "For 106 years, the US has obliged us by letting us do what we want. I thank God for that, especially for the funding they provide and this is why I believe we should continue to stick with it."

Addressing the immigration issue, FPSSC chairman Tufele Li'amatua said recommendations will be made to have the Governor appoint an Immigration Office director, to be confirmed by the local Legislature.

This means the Immigration Office would not fall under the Governor's Office or the Office of the Attorney General but instead, stand alone and "be put up on a pedestal where they will be observed by the public and held accountable for their work."

He added that "things are good but changes could make it better," referring to American Samoa being a part of the Pacific Forum, something he said the Governor wanted because of its effect on the territory.

"The State Department has voiced their objection to this because they claim they were not notified," Tufele explained. "It is these types of things that don't tend to sit well because there is the belief that we should have a say in decisions that affect our government."

Tufele said that while we are happy with the money pouring in from the United States, the price we pay for such luxury is having only a limited say in what goes on.

Tufele referred to the McDonald's lease at the Utulei Beach Park as an example, saying that even though there are supporters for the project, we cannot do much on land that is being maintained by federal funds.

"The fact is, we are very limited in power. Even though we may have the right to vote for our Governor, the Secretary of Interior still has the power to remove them from office," he continued. Tufele said that while we hardly have a say in anything, this fact may be overlooked by our love of the money that keeps pouring in.

Vice Speaker Savali Talavou Ale said Tutuila and Manu'a currently contribute only 10% of the territory's budget with the federal government funding 90%. "This is what we need to look at when we consider and decide which way we should go," he said.

Sen. Faiivae Galea'i said that as a Commission member, there are three things he would like to see changed in our current form of government.

Faiivae prefaced his remarks by saying the work of the Commission has not been a small task, as their fact finding missions have included three trips off-island and a closer look at the Native Americans (Indians).

"Our government needs to implement some changes," he said. "The first thing that comes to my mind is the need to decrease the composition of the local Legislature," Faiivae said.

Currently a Senator from Leone, Faiivae said the government needs to look into ways to carry this out, as it would save the territory a lot of money.

Faiivae compared Guam, with a population of about 174,000 people and a unicameral Legislature (one house) occupied by 15 lawmakers to American Samoa, with less than half of Guam's population, saying that he believed one house and 15 representatives should be enough for the territory's Fono.

The second change, said Faiivae, is to take decisions involving lands and titles away from non Samoan judges and put them in the hands of the local government and its leaders.

Thirdly, Faiivae suggested opening the communication lines between the territory and Savaii and Samoa, to discuss the possibility of uniting the Samoas.

He said that unification could prove to be a good decision to obtain statehood status, although he felt that such things would take a lot of time and "we would probably all be dead by the time this happens."

Faiivae concluded, "I believe these changes should be made but of course, the final say is in the hands of the people and voters."

US Army retired Lt. Col. Mapu Jamias used the Republic of Palau's political status to highlight another option for the territory.

"What should American Samoa's political status be? This is the question that we must ask ourselves," Jamias said.

"Should we be sovereign in our own right or must we continue to be under the influence of another?" Jamias continued, adding that currently, the US Congress controls the territory.

Jamias explained that under the compact the Republic of Palau entered into with the US, Palau is sovereign over itself, meaning they have their own flag, they cast a vote in the United Nations and the door is open for them to receive foreign aid from other countries like Taiwan and Japan. The compact will be renegotiated after fifty years.

American Samoa does not receive funds from foreign countries, only the US.

Under the compact, the US provides $497 million to Palau, for the first fifteen (15) years, although the money is not guaranteed to be offered a second time around.

Meanwhile the Palau people benefit by possessing a sovereign passport, meaning they can travel freely to the US for employment and/or educational purposes, said Jamais.

However, the US can use Palau's lands for military bases. Palau's location places her near Asia and Guam versus American Samoa who is off the strategic path, with the closest countries being New Zealand and Australia.

Palau also does not receive fringe benefits from the US like American Samoa.

They received $4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but according to Jamias, if there is a natural disaster like a storm, the money has to be paid back because Palau has already invested the funds.

Palau has $70 million in a trust fund that has grown to $150 million today. And while money matters are looking good for them, the leaders of Palau are held to strict accountability meaning, their leaders will be sentenced to prison and/or ordered to pay back any misused or stolen funds.

Rep. Gaoteote Palaie Tofau said that one of the good things being exercised in Palau is only those of Palau descent or blood can obtain citizenship status, which is unlike American Samoa where the children of foreigners can gain US National status as long as they are born here.

"Perhaps the biggest difference between us and Palau is the fact that our culture and tradition system is much stronger here," Gaoteote concluded.

One of the two ministers who attended the hearing, Rev. Siaosi Mageo, reminded everyone that the basic job of the Commission is to seek out a form of government that offers benefits for the people.

The other minister, Rev. Luao said the Commission's work includes influencing the government to Christianize its leaders, as his main concern is that the government will take over ultimate control of churches and schools.

"Christians should obey the law of the land," he said. But there could be conflicting instances. For example, Luao said that while the government may say that abortion is okay, as members of the clergy, they cannot agree with such things based on the teachings of the Bible.

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