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SALT LAKE CITY — The window for American Samoans in Utah to be considered U.S. citizens closed quickly after a federal judge put his own ruling on hold Friday.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled Thursday that people born in American Samoa are U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment. His decision came in a lawsuit three Utahns filed against the government last year seeking to be treated as American citizens.
Waddoups stayed his ruling pending resolution of the issue on appeal, according to court documents.
People born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory, are labeled U.S. nationals. Under that status, they cannot vote, run for office, sponsor family members for immigration to the U.S., apply for certain government jobs or serve on a jury — despite paying U.S. taxes.
Neil Weare, an attorney with Equally American who represents John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli in the case, urged Samoan Americans in the state to register to vote as soon as they could after the judge’s decision. The organization based in Washington, D.C., advocates for the civil rights in U.S. territories.
Fitisemanu registered to vote Friday morning, but he’ll now have to wait until the case is resolved before he can vote, Weare said.
“We’re hoping that the appeals process moves forward quickly so he’ll be able to vote in the upcoming primary and general election,” he said on KSL NewsRadio’s “Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry.”
Susi Tafaele, co-founder of the Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition, said the time frame was so short that she doesn’t know how many people were able to register to vote. The group is a plaintiff in the case.
Still, it was a “really landmark” decision, she said.
The U.S. government contends that only Congress, not the federal courts, can grant citizenship to residents of U.S. territories.
Congress over the years has allowed those born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands to claim citizenship by birth. American Samoa is the only territory not granted birthright citizenship.
The American Samoan government also argued against granting its residents U.S. citizenship and intends to appeal Waddoups’ decision.
“Because the residents of American Samoa have vibrant democratic processes and already had a path to citizenship that I had worked to make even more accessible, the ruling is particularly unwelcome and inappropriate,” Aumua Amata, the American Samoa delegate to the U.S. House, said in a statement Friday.
Amata said American Samoa is committed to the preservation of “Fa’a Samoa” or “the Samaon way of life” and is working to make sure that a path to individual citizenship is available and accessible to all American Samoans who choose to pursue it.