For American Samoans, Citizenship Not Guaranteed


The 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ….”

For most of us, that proposition is pretty straightforward. If you are born in the U.S., you are a citizen. But the phrase “in the United States” is not so straightforward for those born in U.S. territories outside of the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii. The Immigration and Nationality Act treats natives of territories differently.

Although people born in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are U.S. citizens, not everyone born in a U.S. territory or possession has the privilege of citizenship. The Immigration and Nationality Act defines persons born in “outlying possessions” as nationals, but not citizens at birth. The Act also defines “outlying possessions” to mean American Samoa and Swains Island.

On June 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reaffirmed that the 55,000 residents from American Samoa and Swains Island are not citizens by birth. A group of people born in American Samoa brought suit, claiming that the 14th amendment afforded them U.S. citizenship. The court rejected their arguments.

That means they can become citizens only by naturalizing: They must fill out the application form and pay the $680 application fee, pass an English and U.S. History and Government test and take the Oath of Allegiance.

However, for noncitizen nationals, the residency requirement is different than for other immigrants. While foreign-born aspiring citizens must maintain a period of legal permanent residency for three or five years after becoming a permanent resident, for these noncitizen nationals, the outlying possessions of the U.S. count toward residence and physical-presence requirements. Upon becoming a resident of any state, the noncitizen national may apply for citizenship immediately.

How many noncitizen nationals become citizens? According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, 265 American Samoans became U.S. citizens in 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available. In the past 10 years, more than 2,100 have done so.


*Image by Flikr user Jerry Woody and used under the terms of Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0.

Posted on June 17, 2015

Our Impact

  • The Campaign has completed over 3,700 naturalization workshops and clinics.
  • Over 250,000 citizenship applications completed since July 2011.

    Saved aspiring citizens and their families over $206million in legal and application fees.
  • Adopted scalable technology. MP3 players, Google Voice, and Virtual Private Network (VPN) services are being used to enhance naturalization service delivery.
  • Expanded New American Workforce (an effort to provide naturalization assistance within corporations) which has partnered with over 100 businesses across the nation, ranging from hotels in Miami to American Apparel in Los Angeles.
  • Deployed Citizenshipworks, an online tool, across the Campaign in multiple settings and languages. A newly redesigned platform guides applicants through through their citizenship application from start to finish and connects applicants to legal help at partnering non-profits.
  • Were instrumental in inspiring the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to support the Citizenship Corners initiative.
  • Created innovative partnerships with public libraries, school districts, universities, social service agencies, and employers, all of which yield not only greater numbers of applicants but also greater awareness of the naturalization process.
  • Deployed a large-scale volunteer recruitment program through an e-learning course.

    Reached diverse communities. Local partners consistently outreach and provide culturally competent and language-appropriate services.
Learn more from our
Impact Report.

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Who We're Helping

People come to America from all over the world with dreams of achieving a better life for themselves and their families and calling this great nation home. Eight million people who live, work, and pay taxes in this country are eligible for citizenship, yet only about eight percent of them naturalize each year. Find out more about these individuals and the barriers they face.Read More