Citizenship in the US

May 13, 2019

Transatlantic Forum: Undoing Citizenship: Statelessness, Denaturalization, and the US, May 8, 2019

The French-American Foundation hosted a Transatlantic Forum on the subject of citizenship in the current American political climate with Betsy Apple, Advocacy Director and Head of the Rule of Law Division for the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Below is a synopsis of the discussion from our speaker:

What is a stateless person, and why is this issue of particular interest right now in the US?

 A stateless person is someone who is not recognized by any state as a member of that state. The right to a nationality has often been described as “the right to have rights,” and without this gateway right, a stateless person is arguably the most vulnerable person in the world. A country can decide how it will confer nationality based on its domestic law. In the US, the acquisition of nationality at birth is through territory; anyone born on US soil is automatically a citizen, according to the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. The US is different from Europe in this respect. Most European countries (including France) use descent as the basis for citizenship.

 The issue of statelessness and nationality is particularly salient in the US right now for two reasons: first, President Trump has threatened to sign an executive order eliminating birthright citizenship for children born in the US to non-citizens. And second, President Trump has implemented a plan to try to revoke the US citizenship of naturalized citizens by establishing a taskforce which aims to comb through potentially hundreds of thousands of naturalization applications looking for bases to commence denaturalization proceedings. The federal government’s use of denaturalization as an immigration policy tool may result in the revocation of US citizenship of many people who made minor or unintentional mistakes or omissions in their naturalization processes. Some believe that denaturalization is inherently discriminatory, because it only targets naturalized citizens, effectively creating 2 classes of citizens—those who gained it through birthright, and those who gained it through naturalization. Twenty-one million Americans are naturalized citizens, and some of those, if denaturalized, would become stateless. Should US policy treat some citizens as “more American” than others, and if so, what are the legal, political, and moral implications of this approach?

The views expressed in this write-up are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation.

Learn more about the Transatlantic Forum