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Spotlighting a law that stripped U.S.-born women of citizenship

WASHINGTON — Daniel Swalm was researching his family when he came across a disturbing episode in immigration history. That discovery would lead to a move in the U.S. Senate to apologize for action the nation took more than a century ago.

Swalm discovered that under an obscure 1907 law, his grandmother Elsie, born and raised in Minnesota, was stripped of her U.S. citizenship after marrying an immigrant from Sweden.

Swalm had never heard of the Expatriation Act that required a U.S.-born woman who married a foreigner to "take the nationality of her husband."

Swalm, who lives in Minneapolis, found out about the law when he stumbled across an alien registration form filled out by Elsie Knutson Moren.

"I could not figure out why Grandma Elsie had to fill one out, because she was born in the United States," he said.

The law has caught others by surprise, too.

"There are all these people doing their genealogy, and they come across relatives who were declared alien enemies during World War I, and they're trying to figure out why that would be if they were born in the United States," said Candice Bredbenner, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

The law, passed at a time of heightened anxiety over the growing numbers of "new immigrants" from eastern and southern Europe, came in response to a belief that U.S.-born women marrying foreigners were forsaking their allegiance to the United States, Bredbenner said.

"A citizen woman's marriage to a foreigner became vulnerable to interpretation as a brazenly un-American act," Bredbenner wrote in her book, "A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Citizenship and the Politics of Marriage."

At the time, magazines wrote about American women marrying European nobility in pursuit of titles. "For some Americans, a titled American was an affront to American ideals," Bredbenner wrote. But thousands who lost their citizenship were average women who lived in immigrant communities, she added in an interview.

Swalm, 61, who never met his grandmother, said stripping her citizenship was a "real injustice."

"Women's suffrage came in 1920, and my grandmother never got to vote," he said.

After women pushed to win the right to vote — secured when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920 — Congress in 1922 acted to allow most, but not all, American-born women who married foreigners to be U.S. citizens. But those who married men ineligible for citizenship, such as Chinese immigrants, still forfeited their U.S. citizenship, until that restriction was later repealed.

Swalm sought to restore his grandmother's citizenship posthumously. He set up a Facebook page, "Justice for Elsie," and heard from descendants of other U.S.-born women stripped of their citizenship.

He met with aides to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who introduced legislation expressing the Senate's regret for passing the 1907 law.

"What happened to Elsie Moren and numerous other women was wrong and should never happen again," Franken said. "The Expatriation Act left thousands like Elsie without citizenship, without voting rights and without a country.

"Our resolution won't scrub history, but it will bring attention to the injustice that these women faced," he added.

The measure, which has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, stands a good chance of passing because it enjoys bipartisan support.

The resolution says Senate acknowledgment of the injustice would "educate the public and future generations regarding the impact of this law on women and prevent a similar law from being enacted in the future."

It cites other women who lost their citizenship, including Ethel Mackenzie of San Francisco, who unsuccessfully challenged the law before the Supreme Court in 1915.

Congress has issued apologies before. In 2012, it apologized for passing laws targeting Chinese immigrants, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1993, Congress apologized to Hawaiians for the U.S.-led overthrow of their monarchy in 1893. In 1988, President Reagan signed legislation providing $1.25 billion, or $20,000 each, in reparations and a formal apology for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

In 2008, the House issued an apology to African Americans "on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow." The Senate passed a similar resolution a year later.

As for Elsie Moren, she died in 1926 at age 35 without regaining her citizenship. But her foreign-born husband, Carl Moren, became a U.S. citizen in 1928.

richard.simon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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