California residents may not be aware that those born in some U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico are granted automatic U.S. citizenship, but individuals born in others like American Samoa are not. A group of American Samoans decided to challenge this state of affairs by filing a lawsuit, but a June 5 federal appeals court ruling preserved the current law. The three judges who heard the case concluded that the 14th Amendment does not grant U.S. citizenship automatically to those born in an unincorporated political territory of the United States.
While many American Samoan residents likely hoped that the lawsuit would be successful, the litigation failed to garner support from the territory's government officials. The judges hearing the case expressed reluctance to make a ruling that many in American Samoa would not be in agreement with, but observers point out that objections to automatic citizenship are often based on a desire to preserve rules that prevent those with no American Samoan ancestry from owning land.
The ruling preserves laws that require American Samoans to move to the United States and maintain residence for three months or longer before they can apply for naturalization. Critics of the laws say that this not only causes a great deal of inconvenience for American Samoans, but it also effectively turns U.S. citizenship into an unobtainable dream for many of the territory's poorer residents.
An appeals court citing the citizenship provisions of the 14th Amendment as a reason to deny citizenship to those born in a U.S. territory is an indication of how complex and ambiguous immigration law can be. Experienced naturalization attorneys may pay close attention to judicial rulings in immigration cases in order to provide their clients with advice and strategies based on the latest information.