Before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, immigrants must take an oath that says, in part, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”
That language seems to firmly establish a principle of “one person, one country.” But even though it sounds unequivocal, it is not. In fact, it is entirely possible for naturalized U.S. citizens to retain citizenship in another country, or for a native-born American to claim citizenship in a second country. On the face of it, this is an odd arrangement that challenges the notion that citizenship is an expression of national loyalty. How can a person be equally loyal to two countries?
Yet dual citizenship has been specifically sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court. In 1967, the court ruled that the State Department had violated the Constitution when it refused to issue a new U.S. passport to a U.S. citizen who had voted in an election in Israel. The decision overturned a law saying that “a person, who is a national of the United States, whether by birth or naturalization, shall lose his nationality by voting in a political election in a foreign state.”
Compared to other issues — such as a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally — dual citizenship hasn’t been the subject of significant debate in recent years. That may be partly because there is no authoritative tally of how many U.S. citizens possess another nationality. Michael A. Olivas, an immigration professor at the University of Houston Law Center, believes that the number is well over 1 million and could be several times that number.
But the concept of dual citizenship is problematic both symbolically and practically, and could become divisive if more immigrants decide to avail themselves of the privileges of U.S. citizens — as we believe they ought to do. U.S citizens with strong ties to their ancestral countries have been accused of divided loyalties in the past even when they didn’t possess citizenship in those countries — witness the internment of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. But when a U.S. citizen is also a citizen of another country, the accusation is even easier to make.
In previous editorials, we have argued that U.S. citizenship ought to be the norm for people who have decided to live and work permanently in this country. And there’s a case to be made that immigrants are more likely to seek U.S. citizenship if they are able to retain their previous nationality. Why wouldn’t it? They wouldn’t have to give anything up. Indeed, when it became possible to have dual Mexican and U.S. nationality in 1998, there was a surge in the number of Mexican immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship.
But it’s also true that dual citizenship undermines the common bond that unites U.S. citizens regardless of their ethnicity, religion or place of birth. Dual citizenship places a sort of asterisk next to the names of some U.S. citizens but not others.
Nations vary in their attitudes toward dual citizenship. Some reject the concept outright; others allow their citizens to take out a second citizenship only in selected countries and some have drawn a distinction between citizenship and nationality.
Yet there’s no question that dual citizenship poses practical problems both for those who possess it and for the government. The U.S. State Department discourages U.S. citizens from retaining or applying for citizenship in another country because “dual nationality may limit U.S. government efforts to assist nationals abroad. The country where a dual national is located generally has a stronger claim to that person’s allegiance.” The department also warns that “dual citizenship can present a security issue whether to permit access to classified information which affects recruitment, employment and assignments.” In some cases, dual citizenship could disqualify an applicant for a sensitive position with the CIA or the State Department.
The complexities and complications raised by dual citizenship are not enough to justify amending the Constitution to overrule the Supreme Court. But we agree with the State Department that U.S. citizens should think twice about professing allegiance to another country. Moreover, by reinforcing the doubts that some hold about the loyalty of immigrants — some U.S. citizens, for instance, fume when Mexican Americans display the Mexican flag at Cinco de Mayo rallies — the persistence of dual citizenship may make it politically more difficult to secure a path to citizenship for immigrants who came here illegally.
In questioning dual citizenship, we aren’t saying that immigrants must forget their countries of birth or repudiate their language or culture. In large parts of the southwestern United States, U.S. citizens of Mexican descent frequently travel back and forth between the two countries, enriching the cultures and economies of both countries. Rather, we believe that citizenship in this country should be an expression of allegiance to it, enforced not by a pledge but rather by a desire to be part of this country. Dual citizenship may have a place in American society, but the goal should be the cultivation of undivided Americans, proud of their heritage and committed to this nation.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at latimes.com/citizenship and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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