Would A Court Finding For Birthright Citizenship Affect Am. Samoan Culture?

Analysis

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, May 28, 2016) – The Matai system, alienation of land and religious customs are three aspects of the fa’a Samoa, that American Samoa and Congresswoman Aumua Amata cited as reasons in their joint brief calling on the Supreme Court of the United States to deny a petition by the five plaintiffs in the citizenship lawsuit for the highest court in the nation to hear the merits of their lawsuit against the US State Department and senior State Department officials.
 
ASG and the Congresswoman’s office are ‘amicus curiae’, or ‘friends of the court’ in the citizenship lawsuit case, in which five plaintiffs — all American Samoans — argued in lower court that because they were born in American Samoa they should have automatic US citizenship in accordance with provisions of the US Constitution.
 
However, the lower court ruled — and the appeals court in D.C. agreed — that only the US Congress can grant citizenship to persons born “in outlying territories” such as American Samoa.
 
Attorney for the American Samoa government and Congresswoman Aumua Amata contend that arguments advanced by plaintiffs and their supporters amount to a plea for the Supreme Court to extend US citizenship “to the people of American Samoa, whether they like it or not.” They also argued that citizenship would affect the Samoan culture. (See Samoa News May 12 edition.)
 
Since Samoa News published the story on ASG and the Congresswoman’s response, several Samoans — both local and off island — have questioned the specifics in issues pertaining to ‘fa’a Samoa’ being argued by the amicus. Even some non-Samoans off island, monitoring the case, wanted the same information.
 
Michael F. Williams with the Washington D.C. based law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, is representing ASG and the Congresswoman. He argued in court documents filed May 11 that ‘fa’a Samoa, is of fundamental importance to the American Samoan people and Congress has done its part to help preserve this unique culture for over a century.”
 
He says petitioners — referring to the plaintiffs — ignore the anomalous and potentially disruptive consequences for the people and culture of American Samoa that would result from a judicial determination that American Samoans are automatically US citizens.
 
“Such a judicial determination could threaten certain aspects of fa’a Samoa, including its basic social structures, its traditional practices with respect to alienation of land, and its religious customs — all of which are constitutionally-protected principles of American Samoan society,” Williams argued.
 
SOCIAL STRUCTURE
 
“First, citizenship by judicial fiat could threaten the basic structure of American Samoan society” in which “households are organized according to large, extended families, known as ‘aiga,” he said and noted that “Matai, holders of hereditary chieftain titles, regulate village life.”
 
He argued that the “United States has always recognized the matai system in American Samoa” and although the US “initially imposed a few changes to the matai structure by suppressing some titles and transferring governmental recognition of authority from certain high ranking matais to lesser ranking matais, the basic matai structure was untouched and is preserved today.”
 
And when American Samoa was under the authority of the US Navy from 1900–1951, it was customary for the naval government to meet annually with the district governors whom had been appointed by the naval governor on the basis of their rank within the matai system.
 
“This annual meeting, or fono, eventually evolved into what is the American Samoa Legislature - Fono - today,” he said and noted that the US Department of Interior in 1951 took over administration of American Samoa and approved the American Samoa Code, which provides for registration of the matai title limits, and limits the Senate to persons who are matai, despite the U.S. constitutional ban on titles.
 
The “prominence of matai in American Samoan culture” is recognized by limiting eligibility to serve in the Senate to “a registered matai of a Samoan family who fulfills his obligations as required by Samoan custom in the county from which he is elected,” he said citing provisions of the territory’s Constitution.
 
“Were all American Samoan people granted United States citizenship, this tradition could be subjected to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause,” he argued and noted that this Court has observed “[d]istinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.”
 
“While it is far from predetermined that precedent would require abolition of the matai system if the Court extended United States citizenship to American Samoans, there is good reason for the people of American Samoa to urge caution in any societal changes that could imperil their revered cultural institutions,” he said.
 
LAND ALIENATION
 

He argued that citizenship by judicial fiat could also compromise the ways in which land in American Samoa is owned and alienated. He explained that the ‘aiga, which can range in number from dozens to thousands, owns the land in common for the benefit of the group, and the property is managed via the matai, who supervise the economic activity of the common land and meet with each other in a council to organize larger projects.
 
He observed that American Samoan social institutions revolve around the communal ownership and management of the land for the good of the community. He noted that more than 90% of American Samoa’s land communally owned and that the alienation of communal land is strictly regulated, to the extent that the governor must approve the sale.
 
Additionally, American Samoa law restricts the sale of community land to anyone with less than fifty percent racial Samoan ancestry. “This restriction is consistent with practice going back to when the United States assumed possession of American Samoa in 1900 and Commander B.F. Tilley prohibited the alienation of land to non-Samoans,” he said.
 
“Notably, the [US] Department of Justice has recognized the role that American Samoans’ status as noncitizen nationals plays in preserving traditional aspects of Samoan culture,” he said, adding that the USDOJ explained during American Samoa’s constitutional debates of 1984 that the maintenance of fa’a Samoa “has been based partly on treaty and partly simply on our sense of obligation of not imposing our ways arbitrarily on others.”
 
“That protection . . . has been accomplished in part through a legal isolation of American Samoa, which stems in part from the fact that American Samoans are noncitizen nationals rather than American citizens,” Williams recalled what USDOJ said at the time.
 
RELIGION
 
“Unlike the United States, American Samoa has an exceptionally homogenous culture of religion,” he said. “Religious observance is not only a social norm, it is enforced by local leaders, the village matai: ‘[i]n most villages in American Samoa, there are both early evening ‘prayer’ curfews as well as nocturnal curfews’.”
 
Additionally, American Samoans themselves characterize the early evening curfew as having “a religious purpose.”
 
Furthermore, curfews are enforced by young men who punish violators with a range of sanctions that could “include requiring the offender to feed the entire village or the village council, fining the offender as much as $100, reprimanding the offender, withdrawal of titles in extreme cases, banishment, and withholding village protection of the family of the offender.”
 
“It is not difficult to imagine the disruptive consequences that the extension of United States citizenship might create for the American Samoa tradition of prayer curfews,” he said.
 
See Samoa News editions May 12, May 18, May 19 and May 25 for the latest stories pertaining to the citizenship case before the Supreme Court.

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Comments

The concerns mentioned in this article read like a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo of abuse of power and corruption. What are they're really afraid of losing? Not paying workers a minimum wage? Falling under a the jurisdiction non-Samoan law officers, inability to disguise domestic abuse (incl sexual) as "family matters", extortion via excessive rents, more accountability for use of US fed grant funds?

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