Landmark case for US territories citizenship rights heard

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The case centers around John Fitisemanu, a man born in American Samoa, who for the last 20 years has been a U.S. passport-holding, tax-paying resident of Utah.

Arguments were heard today in a landmark appeal case of citizenship rights for Americans born on U.S. territories.

The case centers around John Fitisemanu, a man born in American Samoa, who for the last 20 years has been a U.S. passport-holding, tax-paying resident of Utah.

However, because of current federal law, Fitisemanu is not recognized as a full citizen, only a “U.S. National” — meaning he doesn’t get to vote.

In December, a district court recognized that he is in fact a natural-born U.S. citizen.

The next day, he registered to vote, but because the case was appealed by the government, the decision is now stayed.

Neil Weare, with Equally American, which is representing Fitisemanu, says the legal issue in this case is whether or not Congress can turn citizenship on or off in U.S. territories.

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“The view of the U.S. in court is that’s just a statutory question that Congress can [make a decision on]…unless you’re born on U.S. soil, in a state or D.C., you don’t have a constitutional right to citizenship,” Weare said.

He added: “The worry is injustice … things like denial of SSI benefits, denial of equal Medicaid spending, inequality of treatment when it comes to FEMA programs, or the CARES Act…these residents are treated differently because fundamentally the federal government believes that residents of the territories have a second class status and that’s what we’re fighting against in court and we’re hopeful that the 10th Circuit will affirm the District Court ruling that people born in American Samoa or Guam are equal citizens, equal of any other American.”

The District Court took more than a year to issue its 60-page opinion siding with the Utah resident. A decision from the 10th Circuit is not expected anytime soon.

Whichever way the Tenth Circuit rules, the case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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