Not being able to vote for president has been a sore spot for many Virgin Islanders over the years but the head of one national organization is hoping that an ongoing lawsuit supporting the birthrights of a group of American Samoans will help level the playing field for other residents born in the U.S. territories.
The mission of the Washington, D.C.-based We the People Project is to achieve equal representation for the nearly 5 million citizens living in these American jurisdictions, and the organization’s president Neil Weare told the Source recently that he hopes the lawsuit – filed on behalf of Samoan resident Lene Tuaua and seven others – will help create a new legal framework for territorial civil rights.
The Tuaua lawsuit is based around the constitutional Citizenship Clause, which states that "all persons born … in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States," and any laws and policies that deny citizenship to American Samoans violate that cause, according to the organization’s website.
While the situation in American Samoa is different than it is locally – Samoans carry the status of "nationals" and must be naturalized in order to be considered U.S. citizens – Weare still said that residents in every U.S. territory are battling the same kinds of constitutional issues in one form or another.
"Congress, for example, has the right to retract the citizenship of residents in the Virgin Islands," Weare said. "But what we’re saying is that, under the Constitution, if you’re born on U.S. soil, then the 14th Amendment guarantees a right to citizenship and previous law cases set up a precedent for dealing with that."
There is no movement nationally to abandon the Virgin Islands, Weare said, but residents must be aware that it is always a possibility.
"American Samoa has been a part of the United States for over 100 years but our clients are still not recognized as citizens, even though they are born in that territory," Weare said. "And the idea that this is something that Congress gets to decide, rather than it being a constitutional right is concerning because it should not be left to the political process – the Constitution answers the question, but we have been operating as if there are two classes of territories, where the full Constitution does not apply."
In the case of American Samoa, the federal government has said that Congress has the power to "exclude Americans born in U.S. territories from the Constitution’s guarantee of citizenship based on the controversial insular cases doctrine," Weare said.
According to several online law sites, the "Insular Cases" refer to several U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with the status of territories acquired by the United States from 1808 on – and the court’s ruling that "full constitutional rights did not automatically extend to all areas under American control."
The D.C. District Court recently dismissed the Tuaua case based on this principle, but Weare said that his organization is working on an appeal and plans to continue building its case for territorial rights.
"We are getting closer," he said in his interview with the Source. "We just appealed the case to the D.C. Circuit, will be briefing it within the next several months, and expect a decision within the next year. And we hope to start bringing about this same kind of change within the other territories – that is what this trip to the Virgin Islands is about. We want to start the conversation."
Weare spoke to a small group of residents Thursday night at the V.I. Legislature building and said that residents can also begin the process by visiting the organization’s website, www.equalrightsnow.org, and pledging their support for equal rights.