A federal court in Utah has issued a landmark ruling that the Constitution grants birthright citizenship to those born in American Samoa, and the attorney for plaintiffs in that case said Friday he’s looking to file additional lawsuits in the U.S. Virgin Islands that could expand voting rights for future generations.
A U.S. territory since 1900, those born in American Samoa have been considered American nationals without the full rights of citizenship. Residents of all other territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, have birthright citizenship that was granted by a Congressional law passed in 1929.
Neil Weare of the nonprofit Equally American argued on behalf of the plaintiffs who were born in American Samoa and filed suit to demand the same birthright citizenship granted by the U.S. Constitution to Americans living in the 50 states.
The Utah court found that “regardless of where you’re born in the United States, whether American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Washington D.C., or New York, the Constitution gives you the right to be recognized as citizens, that Congress can’t take away,” Weare said.
The ruling holds that while Congress “can recognize whatever rights it wants to,” the issue of birthright citizenship “is a question that’s answered by the Constitution, not by Congress,” he added.
Weare said he expects the Utah decision to go before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and “we believe there’s a good likelihood” that the court will affirm the ruling — contradicting an earlier ruling by another federal court in a different district.
“That would create a split with the D.C. Circuit, which would almost certainly lead to Supreme Court review,” Weare said. “And then we would finally have an answer to these questions that we’ve had for, in some territories, almost 120 years.”
Weare has also long fought to throw out the Insular Cases, early 20th century Supreme Court rulings about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish-American War. In those 1901 cases, the court held that full constitutional rights do not extend to all places under American control — and included language that made reference to “alien races” and “savage people,” and implied they were unable to grasp the concepts of American government.
In regards to the Utah ruling, “the broader implications of the case in terms of the Insular Cases are important to Virgin Islanders because the work that we’re doing at Equally American is really to expand equality, civil rights, voting rights in the territories. And this case is one important step toward that, much as the Brown vs Board of Education decision was an important step toward political equality and civil rights for African Americans,” Weare said.
Weare said he discussed the ruling Friday at a meeting of the V.I. Bar Association on St. Croix, and lauded the organization for filing numerous amicus briefs in various cases that seek to expand civil liberties for Virgin Islands residents.
“We’re looking to actually potentially file some new cases on behalf of Virgin Islanders, and specifically we’re looking for current residents of the Virgin Islands who used to live in California, Florida, or Hawaii,” Weare said. “We’d be interested in hearing from anybody that wants to vote for President in this next election who are residents of the Virgin Islands” that formerly had residency in those three states.
Equally American previously brought a similar case in an effort to expand voting rights, “so we’re hoping to do that again, and looking for individuals to represent,” Weare said.
Anyone interested in potentially being a plaintiff in such a case is asked to email Weare at nweare@EquallyAmerican.org.