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After discovering he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, American Samoa native Master Gunnery Sgt. Faafetai Mamea was naturalized at the White House on March 25.

Photo by Mike DiCicco

After almost 30 years’ service, Samoan Marine becomes a citizen

26 Mar 2013 | Mike DiCicco Marine Corps Base Quantico

Master Gunnery Sgt. Faafetai Mamea had served the United States in the Marine Corps for nearly 30 years in about as many countries when he discovered six months ago that he was not a U.S. citizen. However, in a swearing-in ceremony held March 25 at the White House and attended by President Barack Obama, that oversight was corrected.

Mamea, administrative chief to the director of Manpower Plans and Policy Division, located in the Marsh Center at Quantico, came to the continental U.S. with his family when he was 12 from American Samoa.

“Because it says American Samoa, you think you’re a U.S. citizen, right?” he said. His parents had told him he was a citizen, and the Marine Corps recruiters agreed when he enlisted before graduating from high school. He had never tried to vote because he was rarely in his home precinct, as he served in more than two dozen countries. He had a U.S. passport, but a stamp in the corner classified him as a “U.S. national.”

American Samoa is the last of the U.S. territories whose natives are not American citizens at birth. But Mamea didn’t discover this until he was arranging a trip to Switzerland for himself and his family last fall. He was shocked. “I represent this great country — I’ve served this country with pride,” he said.

As a national, he had all the rights of a citizen except the right to vote and the right to run for office.

He contacted American Samoa’s congressman, who explained to him that citizenship has long been the subject of bills in the territory and in Congress, but many residents of the islands have resisted the move because it would mean giving up certain communal land ownership rules.

He had to give his fingerprints and fill out all the paperwork a foreign-born resident would need to submit for naturalization, and when he showed up for his interview just a few weeks ago, he needed to prove his English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. civics.

“It helped to expedite the process when I was in uniform,” he said. “You have a Marine here serving for almost 30 years, about to retire after serving his country honorably and faithfully, but not as a U.S. citizen.”

For example, his interviewer only asked him two of the 100 or so questions on the test before telling him to go home and wait for a phone call, adding, “This is going to be a special, special swearing-in,” he recalled. He didn’t know what that meant until he got a call just days before the ceremony, inviting him to the White House.

“It kind of hit me by surprise, like what? The president is going to swear me in? My commander in chief, who I’ve only seen in pictures and on TV?” he said. “It was such an honor.”

Once a year, the president presides over a naturalization ceremony, and Mamea attributed his inclusion in the event at least partly to fortunate timing.

In actuality, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano swore him and 27 others in as citizens after a speech by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alejandro Mayorkas and before a speech by the president.

“The takeaway I had [from the president’s speech] was that we are all basically immigrants,” he said. “In other words, if you are not a Native American, you’re an immigrant.”

Afterward, he said, Obama shook everyone’s hand, and he exchanged a few words with Mamea’s 8-year-old son, suggesting he must be proud of his father.

Shortly, Mamea will pick up his new passport from the post office. In July, he’ll take that trip to Switzerland before officially retiring in August.

“I’m excited, my family’s excited, and now I can retire with my head a little bit higher,” he said.

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico