University of Southern California

Redressing the Legal Stigmatization of American Samoans


Note by Joseph E. Sung
From Volume 89, Number 6 (September, 2016)

Although the plain text of the Fourteenth Amendment states that “[a]ll persons born . . . in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States,” “[t]ens of thousands of Americans who hold U.S. passports are” not legally recognized “as U.S. citizens.” How is this possible? The answer is that these Americans were born in the United States territory of American Samoa rather than anywhere else in the United States.

American Samoa is an “unorganized unincorporated territory” of the United States, located 2,500 miles south-southwest of Honolulu and 1,800 miles north-northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific. Despite having been a part of the United States for over a century, American Samoa is the only United States territory in which its people are not granted United States citizenship by virtue of birth within the territory. The federal government classifies American Samoans as “non-citizen national[s],” a legal status subordinate to that of full citizenship.

American Samoans’ “second-class status” as American “nationals” prevents them from enjoying the full rights and privileges that would otherwise be granted them as American “citizens.” The government’s official classification of “non-citizen national” imposes significant social harm because it stigmatizes American Samoans as “inferior and subordinate” to other Americans. “Non-citizen national” status imposes economic and legal harms as well. Among other things, American Samoans are unable to vote in state or federal elections, are ineligible for certain employment opportunities, and must go through the same expensive immigration and naturalization processes as foreigners in order to be fully recognized as U.S. citizens.


Make a tax deductible contribution to the Southern California Law Review.

  • Donate


  • Irell & Manella
  • Jones Day


Hosted By

  • USC Gould School of Law