Eight natives of American Samoa filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in an attempt to win U.S. citizenship rights, which despite the name of the South Pacific territory, they do not receive at birth.
The lawsuit asks a federal court in Washington to declare that American Samoans are citizens of the United States, a status that would make them eligible for full U.S. passports and rights such as the right to vote while residing in a state.
American Samoa is unique as the only U.S. territory where those born there are not automatically U.S. citizens, the lawsuit said.
In the past century, Congress granted citizenship to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, but not for American Samoa, an archipelago in the Pacific that the United States first claimed in 1900.
American Samoans can claim citizenship if, at birth, they had a parent who was a citizen. They can also pursue U.S. naturalization, but the lawsuit says they should not need to go through that "lengthy, costly and burdensome" process.
As a result, many of American Samoa's 55,500 inhabitants receive passports with an imprint describing them as non-citizen U.S. nationals.
The status violates a clause of the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment declaring that "all persons born ... in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States," the lawsuit said.
Officials at the State Department, which issues passports, and the Justice Department, which defends the government in court, had no immediate comment on Wednesday.
Murad Hussain, a lawyer for the American Samoans, said he was not aware of any similar previous lawsuit.
The eight American Samoans in question, including three minor children, face hardships for being denied automatic citizenship, the lawsuit said.
It said they cannot vote. They were not eligible for certain government jobs or education subsidies. One living in Hawaii could not legally own a firearm, a right the state restricts to U.S. citizens.
One thought he was a U.S. citizen because he served in the Hawaii National Guard, where citizenship is a requirement, but while renewing his passport in 1999, the State Department told him he was not, the lawsuit said.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Desking by Vicki Allen)
(This story was refiled to correct the spelling of lawyer's name in the ninth paragraph)