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"After 18 years of service, realizing then that I was no longer considered a citizen was a slap in the face and overwhelming and- Realizing at that moment in time that I was considered a non-citizen was, it was heartbreaking to be honest." - Staff Sergeant Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson
In this bonus episode of Burn the Boats, Staff Sergeant Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson talks about losing her security clearance and, with it, a pathway to career advancement, just because she was born in American Samoa.
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Ken Harbaugh: Today’s show is brought to you by Storied Hats -- high-quality baseball hats from sustainable materials, crafted in ethical facilities – and always without a logo. Just great quality and design that is about your style, and not some random corporate logo -- and made with values you can be proud of.
Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson: After 18 years of service, realizing then that I was no longer considered a citizen was a slap in the face and overwhelming and- Realizing at that moment in time that I was considered a non-citizen was, it was heartbreaking to be honest.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
As promised, this week we have a special bonus episode for you. During my conversation with Admiral Joe Sestak, I mentioned the plight of American Sa’moan service members. I wanted to give that issue the attention it deserves.
In March of 2018, US service members born in American Samoa received an email alerting them to a change in military policy. They are now required to either verify their citizenship, file for naturalization, or lose their security clearance.
American Samoa IS US soil and those who are born there hold US passports, but they are not full US citizens. The naturalization process can take years and is not guaranteed. But without security clearance, service members are unable to rise through the ranks. They hit a ceiling in their military careers, despite years of hard work, and patriotism. Indeed, American Samoans serve in the US military at extraordinarily high rates -- their casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan is seven times the national average.
I spoke with Staff Sergeant Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson, born in American Samoa, about what it was like to receive that email and about the actions she and others are taking to fight it.
Staff Sergeant Jen Afualo-Robinson, it is an honor to have you on the show. You've been on the front lines in a number of ways, but you're on the front lines today of this fight over citizenship. I want to hear a little bit about what it's like growing up in American Samoa. I have not been, I have always wanted to go, but everyone I've talked to who is from there or who has visited there, talks about this deep sense of patriotism. I mean, you can't turn a corner without seeing an American flag. American Samoa has the highest proportion of its residents serving in the US military as any state or territory, seven times the casualty rate of the national average. Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up there and your background and what led you to join the US military.
JAR: Sure, so it's a small island. I think the average speed on the island is 25 miles an hour and you can go around the island in about I would say maybe two, three hours. But it's a quaint place. It's beautiful. It's an easy living, you know, beat at your own drum and it's just easygoing. Every morning at school, you know, we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we'd say our prayer, we'd sing hymns, the American Samoa anthem and the national anthem, you know, and that was a natural occurrence for me. It never dawned on me that this was something not practiced worldwide, but I soon realized afterwards that, yeah, this was rather unique to the island.
KH: Is it a strange feeling to come from American Samoa to the mainland, to the states, and realize that that same sense of patriotism isn't shared across the country?
JAR: Yeah, it's kind of, it's ingrained in us as Samoans from day one. You know, it's the name is in itself American Samoa, so you know, you go to downtown Samoa and there's the Samoan flag, the US flag, and you know, it's not hard to feel that that drive or the passion of not just the culture itself, but for citizenship, for patriotism of the country and of the United States and being so willing to share our culture with others and just loving what we have and being willing and so giving of it. It's awesome. It's a great feeling.
KH: Well speaking of giving, the act of giving extends well beyond the borders of your islands. It is an area that gives more than just about anywhere else to the defense of the country. Can you provide any glimpse at all, any insight into like the foundations of that patriotism? I totally understand the rituals of the Pledge of Allegiance and the American flags reinforcing that sense of patriotism, but sort of what's at the root of that that love of country in American Samoa?
JAR: I think what it boils down to is being able to represent your family, being so prideful of your family name that having that patriotism behind it and backing it with the love of country just propels you forward and excels that love of country and the pride that you have for not only your family name, for the culture and for all that there is to offer.
KH: Can you explain the difference between a citizen born in the US with all of the rights inherent to birthright citizenship and an American Samoan who was denied that?
JAR: What I do know is that as American Samoans, we did not want to give up our land rights, which is what we were afraid would happen if we were allowed full citizenship, as birthright, whereas natural births in the states are given that that birthright as soon as they take their first breath, they're given that citizenship, that title, that I want- I don't want to say that honor, but you know at this point in time it does seem like something honorable, you know, and I value that tremendously.
KH: Well, you value it enough to fight for it, which is the subject of my curiosity here, because you are not a US citizen and as a non-citizen, even one who has spent 17 years in uniform in service to this country, you are denied certain rights that citizens take for granted. When did you first realize that that that distinction was real, that in fact, you could swear an oath to the Constitution, you could join the US military, and still not be considered a citizen and that that mattered.
JAR: That would be when I received an email from the Department of Defense stating that I had about nine months wiggle room to either file for naturalization or risk losing my security clearance in the military, which was very valuable to me because that allowed me the opportunity to go forward, to progress in my military career, so after 18 years of service realizing then that I was no longer considered a citizen was a slap in the face and overwhelming and insulting and just a realm, a whole realm of emotions tied into it, frustrating and infuriating. Realizing at that moment in time that I was considered a non-citizen was, it was heartbreaking to be honest.
KH: You use the word insulting and I'm going to pick that apart a little bit, because 18 years of service, most of it on active duty. You deploy, you kept us safe. You did your part for 18 years and then you get an email saying, in effect, "We don't trust you."
JAR: Pretty much.
KH: For those who are unfamiliar with the whole pretense of a security clearance, it's about trust, right?
KH: And you had a security clearance. What level was your security clearance?
JAR: It was a secret security clearance.
KH: So you had a secret security clearance for a good chunk of your 18 years of military service, during which time the Army, the government, the American people trusted you with some of our most important secrets and then by email you were told nope, by virtue of you being born in American Samoa, which by the way has more people serving in uniform as a percentage of their population than anywhere else, by virtue of you being born there, we no longer trust you.
JAR: That's exactly what happened. It just breaks your heart a little and you can't help but get mad at receiving news in that form or in any way or you know, even if anyone in my leadership brought that news to me, I still would have been infuriated and still would have been just as insulted and still am to this day. And being able to vote. Goodness, if I could gain that, if I had that citizenship back, that would be the first thing that I would fight for: the ability to vote.
KH: Yeah, I want to highlight that last point. Given the reality that so few Americans, far too few Americans who have that right enshrined just by virtue of where they were born to vote actually exercise that right. You spent 18 years and continue as a reservist to serve in a military that answers to a commander-in-chief who you have no ability to vote for. Did I say that right?
JAR: That's correct. That is very correct.
KH: Keep listening for more of my conversation with Staff Sergeant Afualo-Robinson, but first, here’s a quick word about our sponsor for this episode - Storied Hats.
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Where's the fight right now? Because you're not taking it lying down.
JAR: No, so Neil Weare, he's an attorney for the organization called Equally American and it's trying to shed light on the inequalities and the unfairness of how American Samoans are the leading recruits for the military, how we've sacrificed a lot of lives in the fight for our freedom, and yet we're still not viewed as citizens and we've given so much for so little. I've also- have taken to social media as well to try to gain some footing with my other colleagues - American Samoan colleagues - to help them realize that they don't have to bow down to this email that they've all received, we've all received, there is a way to fight it and that we should fight it.
KH: Well it's a perfectly named organization, Equally American, and fits the case that you're trying to make, that being born on American soil, which American Samoa is, should give you the same rights to claim citizenship as anyone else born on American soil. But it doesn't, I mean that's the reality we're at now and it- in this political climate, it begs the question, do you think there is any, gosh, any political motivation behind it? Because I cannot fathom someone making a sincere claim that there's a national security argument behind it. We trusted you for 18 years. We've asked more American Samoans than any other group of Americans to give their lives. It just seems beyond imagining to me that this really is about trusting American Samoans with security clearances. Do you think there is anything else going on?
JAR: I can't help but to feel that there is some tie to this sudden distrust to the current political challenges that we're facing. For the first 15 years of my active duty career, never once was my citizenship ever challenged, ever questioned, ever doubted and then we have the current administration and it wasn't until now that the doubt started to linger and manifest itself into an email that confirmed the distrust. So I definitely can't help but to feel that there is a strong relation to this email and to the current administration.
KH: And this issue of security clearances isn't some some phony grievance or some way to split hairs. Without a security clearance, tell me what your career trajectory would look like.
JAR: Without it...
KH: I mean, it's a short answer right, you wouldn't have one.
JAR: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to progress.
KH: You are basically relegated to to those roles in the military that don't require a security clearance, that basically end your career. There are so many pathways that are automatically shut off without it.
JAR: Indeed. For example, the unit I'm in right now is a military intelligence unit and in order to progress to the next rank, to be promoted from E6 staff sergeant to E7 sergeant first class, I'm required to hold a security clearance because of the level of confidential documents that we may or may not come across. Now being that I do not have a security clearance, I'm therefore relegated to staying as E6 in this unit that I'm in or I can seek further employment with another unit, which is just nonsense to me. It shouldn't come down to transferring out of one unit to another just to progress, just to further my career-
KH: I mean there's the practical aspect of career progression and then there's the moral, the philosophical assault on your integrity, your trustworthiness, and ultimately your patriotism. Do you think that this effort and the other sort of parallel efforts to marginalize people who are serving faithfully in uniform has an effect on national security, kind of the opposite of what these justifications articulate, that they're trying to bolster national security by taking away your security clearance or by banning transgender troops. I would submit, and would love your thoughts, that they're actually harming national security by not allowing people like you to be the best you can be.
JAR: Right. I honestly don't see the parallel. I don't see how trying to bolster national security by removing citizenship for American Samoans, how that equates. I truly don't understand it. There's so many people willing to give up their lives for this country, namely American Samoans, and to say that we pose a security risk, that's just lost on me. It truly is.
KH: Outside of American Samoa, how has the case been received on the mainland? Are people starting to realize the injustice being perpetrated?
JAR: Definitely. One of my cousins, John Fitisemanu here in Utah, has a case with Neil as well. They've taken it to the courts, trying to fight this injustice and trying to help put that awareness out there. That case has gained some great footing and we're just, we're waiting patiently for some good news. So that's where we're at with that.
KH: Well Staff Sergeant Afualo-Robinson, thank you so much for bringing this issue to our attention. Thank you, of course for your service to this country in uniform and now as an advocate for justice for American Samoans,
JAR: Thank you Ken. It was great chatting with you as well. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
KH: Thanks again to Staff Sergeant Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson for joining me. Check out Equally American at www.equalrightsnow.org to keep up with their fight.
Next week, we’ll be back to our regular episodes. I’m talking with Adam Frankel, former speechwriter for President Obama and author of a new memoir, The Survivors. Adam talks about the Holocaust, generational trauma, and the benefits of honesty and vulnerability to the healing process.
And don’t forget to join our discussion. Tell us if your family has benefited from opening up about difficult things. Leave us a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to [email protected].
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.