With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

SCOTUS Declines to Hear Challenge to Citizenship Law Disadvantaging American Samoans

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to reconsider the so-called "Insular Cases," a series of cases decided in the early 1900s that are infamous today for their racist foundation.

The court's action dashes hopes of American Samoans who were seeking birthright citizenship. It also leaves intact a Tenth Circuit decision that has been seen as "breathing new life" into constitutional distinctions between U.S. states and territories — which former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal said establish "a second-class of unequal Americans."

Attorney Neil Weare, president of the organization representing the plaintiffs in this case, echoed the sentiment: "The Supreme Court's refusal to reconsider the Insular Cases today ... reflect[s] that 'Equal Justice Under Law' does not mean the same thing for the 3.6 million residents of U.S. territories as it does for everyone else."

At issue in this case was the way that people born in various U.S. territories are treated under law when it comes to U.S. citizenship. The Constitution says that anyone "born or naturalized in the United States" is a citizen of the country. But for U.S. territories, eligibility for birthright citizenship in the territories is controlled only by Congress – it is not constitutionally guaranteed.

Residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas Islands are deemed U.S. citizens under the Immigration and Nationality Act. But American Samoans are not. Congress has not granted birthright citizenship to residents of American Samoa or Swains Island, both of which are classified only as "outlying possessions."

It is this disparate treatment that was before the court, after three American Samoans living in Utah brought a challenge to the Immigration and Nationality Act, contending that the statutory denial of citizenship is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause.

Read entire article at NPR