SALT LAKE CITY -- People born in the territory of American Samoa should be recognized as U.S. citizens, a federal judge in Utah decided Thursday in a case filed amid more than a century of legal limbo but whose eventual impact remains to be seen.
The cluster of Pacific islands southwest of Hawaii is the only place in the country without an automatic claim to citizenship. People born there are labeled U.S. nationals, meaning they pay taxes but cannot vote, run for office or apply for certain government jobs.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups sided with three people from American Samoa who sued to be recognized as citizens. He ruled that the Utah residents are entitled to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and ordered the government to issue them new passports.
It wasn't immediately clear if the ruling applies outside Utah, which has a large number of people who hail from the territory and other Pacific island communities.
Congress has allowed people born in other American territories like Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands to claim birthright citizenship over the years.
But American Samoa’s population of about 55,000 has fallen to the wayside. Their passports say, “This bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”
The State Department did not have immediate comment on the ruling.
It's expected to be appealed, said the plaintiffs' attorney, Charles V. Ala'ilima.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the issue in 2016, after a lower court found the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship didn’t apply to American Samoa.
If the new, conflicting ruling out of Utah is affirmed by an appeals court, it could create a “circuit split” and put pressure on the high court to step in.
The ruling shows that while birthright citizenship has had some controversy at the national level, it's “one of the bedrock, foundational rights that our country was built on,”said Neil Weare, president of Equally American and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
“The takeaway from the ruling is that people born in American Samoa living in Utah are now U.S. citizens, and they have all the same rights as other Americans, including the right to vote,” Weare said. “These individuals can now go and register to vote and participate in state, federal and local elections.”
John Fitisemanu sued after being rejected for jobs that list U.S. citizenship as a requirement. He said he's “ecstatic” about the ruling and plans to register to vote as soon as possible.
The Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition plans to register people to vote from the community whose connections to the state date to the late 1800s, when missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint took the faith's message to the Pacific, co-founder Susi Lafaele said.
American Samoans are able to pursue naturalized U.S. citizenship, but it costs $725 to apply, plus legal fees to hire an attorney to help navigate the process.
The American Samoan government, meanwhile, has argued that automatic U.S. citizenship could undermine local traditions and practices, including certain rules that restrict land ownership only to those of Samoan ancestry.
Acting Attorney General Alexandra Zirschky said Thursday that the office is still reviewing the ruling.
Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Anita Snow in Phoenix and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.