Patrick Weil

April 16, 2013

Foundation speaker shares history of denaturalization in Sovereign Citizen.


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 Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne.

In addition to The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (Penn Press, 2013), he has published a number of books addressing the issues of immigration and national identity in France and abroad.

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).



Your impressive body of work has made you a leading expert on issues of immigration, integration, and national identity. Your newest book, The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic, released in November 2012, looks at the United States’ definition of citizenship through a legal and historical lens.

You’ve done extensive work on questions of immigration and national identity in France and Europe. What inspired your new book, which looks at the historical practice of denaturalization in the United States?

This book was even a surprise for me. I decided to write it three years ago. Originally – 8 years ago – I had in mind a book comparing denaturalization in democracies (the U.S., U.K., France) and in authoritarian regimes (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Vichy France). I wanted to check in the archives if the same practices existed behind the same words, if there were similar consequences to those practices or if there were differences of degree or kind. But the U.S. case surprised me. Until now, scholars have only focused on denaturalization during times of war, which constitute only one percent of the total number of denaturalized Americans, totaling 22,000. And no one had ever studied the 85,000 native-born Americans who had been denationalized. The U.S. is the democracy where the number of those deprived of citizenship was highest in the 20th century: it has had the biggest impact on the redefinition of citizenship. It was time to pay attention to it.


The question of revoking citizenship from naturalized citizens has been part of a recent political discourse in France. In the recent past, denaturalization has been debated as an option for immigrants convicted of certain crimes, and the validity of marriages serving as grounds for naturalization has also brought this practice into the debate.
Did you find parallels between the American debate on denaturalization, which is still permitted but very rare, and the way citizenship through naturalization is approached in France?

In France as in the U.S. denaturalization is still permitted but extremely rare. In the U.S. – thanks to the Supreme Court – it can only happen if you have been illegally naturalized at any time, even fifty years after the naturalization itself. The U.S. government targets criminals against humanity who have camouflaged their past when they applied for residence and citizenship. In France, you can be denaturalized for very serious crimes committed in the ten years following your naturalization and within a time limit of ten years after the crime has been committed. The French government targets serious criminals and terrorists. Like in the U.S., in France politicians sometimes proposed the extension of denaturalization on other grounds. But there is a strong reluctance and resistance to do so on the same grounds: the belief that it contributes to the transformation of the naturalized into second-class citizens.


What are the key challenges (for individuals and on a larger scale) created by denaturalization? Did this practice create individuals with no formal citizenship?

In the U.S., denaturalization can still result in statelessness. In France and in Europe this is no longer the case: it is forbidden by the European Convention on Nationality, signed and implemented by many European states. Yet in the U.S., denationalization – deprivation of citizenship for the native-born citizen – has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for all U.S. citizens born in the U.S. It is constitutional – though rare – in many European countries like the U.K. or France based on certain criteria.


What is the correlation between denaturalization and national identity or values? Were individuals denaturalized because their actions or identity (ethnic or political) were deemed incompatible with the values of the nation? Or are other questions at play in this debate?

In the U.S. denaturalization was, first, the main instrument for the progressive transfer of naturalization authority from states’ courts to the federal government, where it belongs today. The conditionality of citizenship emerged at the same time: naturalized individuals could also be stripped of their citizenship for activities perceived as un-American. In 1909 Emma Goldman was the first and perhaps best-known person denaturalized on political grounds. She was soon joined by Socialists, Communists, and Nazis, but also by Asian-Americans. In France, denaturalization has occurred because of radical opinions. In Vichy France, 7,000 Jews were denaturalized before some of them were deported to extermination camps.


How has the political debate surrounding immigration changed since the election of President François Hollande? If noticeable changes have occurred, what impact has the Socialist government had? Has the European debt crisis averted public attention from this occasionally ‘hot’ political topic?

There have been no big changes in immigration policy since Hollande’s election – only a less divisive approach toward minorities: new instructions to timidly reopen the gates of naturalization, which decreased 50 percent in the final two years of Sarkozy’s presidency. In some ways this is understandable. After all, Sarkozy wanted an immigration system which would have resembled the ethnic quotas system that existed in the U.S. during the interwar period. However, he could not get a majority to do it, so he had to keep working within the legal frame he inherited from the left; for example, he legalized more than 30,000 undocumented immigrants per year, like the left, but did his best to make the status of legal immigrants more fragile and more precarious. Ten months after the government of François Hollande took power, this has not really changed.


How has the European Union and, more specifically, the Schengen Agreement (that allowed for the borderless circulation of citizens from participating nations) altered the debate on immigration? Has an acceptance of intra-European immigration resulted? Has a European “national identity” emerged, or have efforts been made to forge one?

The intra-European migration phenomenon has been too small – except in the U.K. – to have an impact on the identity of Europe. But the current crisis might change that: because unemployment is in the south of Europe and jobs are in Germany. For economic and demographic reasons some kind of mass migration could occur which could reshuffle European identity, but this is all occurring at a time when national egos seem to be dangerous for Europe.


You have taught at a number of U.S. institutions. What has been your experience in teaching at American universities, as opposed to French universities? What is the most striking difference between our two nations’ educational systems?

American universities provide professors and students with a much better environment for research and study. But for the latter, they are far more expensive than their French counterparts. American students participate in class much more than French students. It reflects different teaching practices: the U.S. is more interactive, which I prefer.


You have written several books that have inspired others and informed debate on an array of issues. What book has had a true impact on your thinking or your life in general?

I would like to mention two books that have had an important impact on my thinking and my work. First, “We the People” by Bruce Ackerman, which masterfully mixes law, history and political science to describe and interpret the political history of the United States in the last two centuries in a way no French scholar has ever done for our own history. Second, “Vichy France” by Robert Paxton is a tour de force. Addressing the most difficult period of the 20th century in France, a foreigner has written the indispensable treatment of the subject both by mastering the global trends present during the time and by expertly assembling the many details which coalesced during those years. Both works are examples of macro-history. “The Sovereign Citizen” is a micro-history. But when I was losing confidence in my capacity as a foreigner to understand and produce a good history of this unknown American topic, Paxton’s work was the reference that would wake me up and push me forward. And Ackerman’s special mixture of law, history, and political science was always my guide.