April 2013


The Sovereign Citizen with Patrick Weil


Acclaimed French intellectual Patrick Weil will join the French-American Foundation for a luncheon to discuss his forthcoming work, The Sovereign Citizen, which tells a century-old history of immigration, the acquisition of citizenship, and more specifically, the policy of denaturalization that stripped U.S. citizens of their legal status for various historical reasons – from politics to ethnicity. This work, which explores immigration legislation and Supreme Court debate – gives a telling insight into the way citizenship and nationality has been defined in the fabric of American law.

About The Sovereign Citizen
Throughout this last century, more than 140,000 naturalized and native-born Americans were deprived of their citizenship and would often become stateless. The Sovereign Citizen tells for the first time their story.

Included in the Naturalization Act of 1906, as to prevent fraudulent and illegal naturalization, denaturalization proceedings initiated by the Department of Justice became the main instrument for the progressive transfer of naturalization authority from states and local courts to the federal government where it belongs today. Alongside the federalization of naturalization, the conditionality of citizenship emerged: naturalized individuals could also be stripped of their citizenship for affiliations with activities or organizations perceived as un-American. Emma Goldman, the first denaturalized - in 1909 - on political grounds was soon joined by Socialists, Communists, and Nazis, but also by Asian Americans and foreign-born Americans living abroad. By 1940, this threat expanded to include native-born Americans and led to a program during the Second World War for the denaturalization of thousands of German Americans. At that time, the Supreme Court began to debate the constitutionality of denaturalization and denationalization. From 1942 to 1971, tense debates would sharply divide justices. Eventually, the practice of denaturalization was sharply restricted but is still, in narrow circumstances, permitted.

But some justices were aghast by the forced denationalization of an American-born citizen. 'I am convinced that such a suggestion would have been shocking to the Founding Fathers and the American people and it should still be shocking' wrote Chief Justice Warren on a stenography pad the author of the book found in his archives. When Warren wrote those words in 1958, he was, with the decisive help of Justice Hugo Black, developing a criticism of expatriation that was rooted in the language of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment:  in America, sovereignty belongs to the citizens themselves, not to the state. But he was lacking a majority. In 1967, in Afroyim v. Rusk, Justice Black was finally able to outline this interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which brought about a reversal of the traditional concept of sovereignty. The close historical account of this fundamental reshaping of the American citizenship allows the reader of The Sovereign Citizen to go behind the scenes and discover the daily functioning of every branch of the government, especially of the Supreme Court.

About Patrick Weil
Patrick Weil is a Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a senior research fellow at the French National Research Center in the University of Paris1, Pantheon-Sorbonne. In addition to The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (Penn Press, 2013) just published, his most recent publications are How to be French? Nationality in the Making since 1789 (Duke University Press, 2008), Why the French Laïcité is Liberal (Cardozo Law Review, June 2009, Vol. 30, Number 6, 2699-2714), and The Anti-racist Origins of the American Immigration Quota System (Social Research, Volume 77, Number 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 45-79, with Son-Thierry Ly).


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