The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to decide who becomes a US citizen at birth, in a case brought by a group of American Samoans.
Since 1900, American Samoa has been a territory of the United States. But unlike residents of other US territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, its residents are declared by Congress to be "non-citizen nationals."
Accordingly, they cannot vote in U.S. elections, run for public office, or serve as officers in the U.S. military. Their passports are stamped "The bearer is a United States National and Not a United States Citizen."
Five people born there filed a lawsuit, claiming their non-citizen status violates a provision of the 14th Amendment that says "All persons born or naturalized in the States States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Among those suing were Fanuatanu Mamea, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts but who was denied his request to serve in the U.S. Special Forces, and Emy Afalava, who served in Kuwait during the first Gulf war but cannot vote in a U.S. election.
The resolution of the case "governs whether tens of thousands of Americans born in American Samoa — many of whom have patriotically defended their country in the military — may finally call themselves American citizens," said Washington, DC lawyer Theodore Olson, who urged the justices to take the case.
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Immigrants becoming citizens in America
Supreme Court declines to rule on what makes a US citizen
Immigrants from 25 countries take the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony in Daley Plaza on September 16, 2014 in Chicago, Illinipois. Seventy people were awarded their U.S. citizenship at the Citizenship Day ceremony. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Immigrants take oath of citizenship to the United States on November 20, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. Sixty immigrants from 25 countries became American citizens during the naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) office at Newark's Federal Building. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
New American citizens celebrate at a naturalization ceremony on November 20, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. Sixty immigrants from 25 countries became American citizens during the ceremony at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), office at Newark's Federal Building. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
New U.S. citizens, including Nicole Annete Flood from Mexico (C), attend a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on September 19, 2014 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Forty immigrants from 18 different countries became American citizens at the event, held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on Constitution and Citizenship Day. This week USCIS will have naturalized more than 27,000 new citizens at 160 ceremonies nationwide. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A new U.S. citizen holds an American flag at a naturalization ceremony at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, Thursday, July 3, 2014. Judge Sarah Evans Barker naturalized 101 new citizens at the ceremony. The ceremony was part of an annual celebration of Independence Day by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ricky Checo, center, of the Dominican Republic, takes the oath of allegiance along with other immigrants during a citizenship ceremony at Liberty State Park, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in Jersey City, N.J. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is celebrated each year on Sept. 17, on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is expected to welcome more than 36,000 new citizens during more than 200 naturalization ceremonies across the country from Sept. 17-23. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New citizens wave American flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony on the campus of Florida International University, Monday, July 6, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
U.S. citizen Jimmy Dial puts his U.S. Navy cap on his 3-year-old daughter Kimberly Dial as fellow citizen and U.S. Army soldier Henri Blandon holds his 4-year-old daughter Karin Blandon as the men's wives and girls' mothers become U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony featuring remarks by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in Ontario, Calif., Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Yassin Elalamy, of Egypt, from left, Ezra Dessie, of Ethiopia, and Hilary Suarez, of the Dominican Republic, recite the pledge of allegiance during a Halloween-themed naturalization ceremony, Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, in Baltimore. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomed 38 children, many of whom came dressed in Halloween costumes, from 18 countries. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
New United States citizens recite the Oath of Allegiance while participating in a naturalization ceremony, Wednesday, July 9, 2014 in New York. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas administered the Oath of Allegiance to 75 citizenship candidates at the 85th Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Sarah Contis, 5, holds up an American flag while accompanying her father, Alex Contis, right, of Romania, as he becomes a U.S. citizen during a naturalization ceremony for more than 1,000 citizenship candidates at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in Atlanta. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomed 1,094 new citizens from 81 countries as part of their annual Independence Day celebration marking the nationâs 238th birthday this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Eduardo Simental, right, of Mexico, raises his hand as he recites the Oath of Allegiance at a Naturalization Ceremony in Oklahoma City, Friday, June 27, 2014. Fifty-one individuals from 24 countries took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States as their final step to become citizens. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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The Obama administration fought to defend the current non-citizen status. So did the government of American Samoa, which said in a Supreme Court brief that a change could threaten traditional Samoan cultural practices, such as large, extended families and communal land ownership.
The Justice Department said US territories are not "in the United States" within the meaning of the Constitution, so only Congress can confer citizenship, as it has for all territories except American Samoa.
The court said Monday in a brief unsigned order that it would not near the appeal.