A U.S. district court judge ruled that people born in the territory of American Samoa should be U.S. citizens. This territory is a tiny group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean. It’s also currently the only place in the United States where people don’t become citizens at birth. Instead, they bear the label “U.S. nationals.” This means that they pay taxes. But they are not allowed to vote, run for office, or hold certain government jobs.
American Samoa is one of several U.S. island territories that have not become states. Others include Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States acquired these territories in a period of colonial expansion.
American Samoa is unique though. Unlike every other U.S. territory and state, people born there are not granted citizenship. Their passports say, “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.” As U.S. nationals, American Samoans don’t have the privileges of citizens. People born in other U.S. territories can move to states and vote in elections there. But U.S. nationals cannot.
American Samoans can become U.S. citizens—if they’re willing to pay. Application for citizenship costs $725, plus legal fees. The price tag discourages many from taking this route.
It’s not yet clear what effect the judge’s ruling will have on American Samoa. Some American Samoans oppose automatic U.S. citizenship. They believe it could go against local practices and traditions on the islands. Would becoming American citizens make them less Samoan?
The situation in this territory raises some questions about the U.S. Constitution. The United States was created when 13 colonies of the British Empire demanded independence. One of their main complaints was “taxation without representation.” The British government ruled—and taxed—the colonies without giving them a voice into leadership or policies. Now the United States rules—and taxes—territories that have no voice in their government.
Should the territories become states? Should the people of American Samoa receive citizenship as a birthright? These are questions earthly nations must ask.
Christians enjoy a different kind of citizenship. Ephesians 2:19 says of all believers, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” No one earns this citizenship—by work or by birth. It is the gift of God for those who are born again through the Holy Spirit into faith in Jesus. That citizenship remains when all earthly citizenship passes away.