WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that people from the South Pacific islands of American Samoa do not have a right to U.S. citizenship simply because they were born in the U.S. territory.
The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit preserves federal laws that make those born in American Samoa U.S. nationals, but not citizens like people born in Puerto Rico and other territories.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Janice Rogers Brown said the Constitution's 14th Amendment does not automatically extend birthright citizenship to the nation's unincorporated political territories.
Brown also said the court was reluctant to "impose citizenship over the objections of the American Samoan people themselves, as expressed through their democratically elected representatives."
The lawsuit filed by a small group of American Samoans did not have the support of the islands' government officials. The government of American Samoa has argued that automatic U.S. citizenship could undermine local traditions and practices, including certain rules that restrict land ownership only to those of Samoan ancestry.
People born in American Samoa must leave the territory and live in a U.S. state for at least three months to apply for naturalization. Many complain that the inconvenience and expense of the process prevents them from pursuing citizenship.
The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, Leneuoti Tuaua, said he wanted to become a law enforcement officer in California but couldn't because he isn't a citizen.
Home to about 56,000 people, American Samoa has been a U.S. territory since 1900, when traditional leaders of the islands agreed to give up their sovereign authority to the U.S. government.