We each deploy an array of identities in forming our social selves -- we can be, say, a Methodist and also a Southerner, and black and a civil engineer and gay. And all of this and still an American. Each aspect distinguishes us; together they individuate us. No single identity -- even that of our nationality -- adequately describes who we are, how we see ourselves. In these times, we no longer see the possession of one nationality as excluding another; many have more than one nationality. We can be both French and American; one does not displace the other in the modern imagination. (A nod to the late Tom Franck here, who explored these themes, personally and in his writings on nationality.)
Our view of citizenship shifted during the 20th century. It began as an exclusive (if not jealous) relationship between the United States and its nationals, characterized by duty and loyalty. These understandings differ from today’s far more easygoing tolerance (if not encouragement) of multiple nationalities and distributed allegiance. Weil’s book explores and the targets and the techniques of denaturalization.
During its heyday, the grounds for permissible denaturalization varied as did its target groups: anarchists to Asians, German sympathizers to Communists. The relevant legislation expands, as Congress succumbs to changing nativist anxieties. Here we see the myriad forms of American intolerance: for racial difference (in the case of Asians) and political trouble-makers (anarchists, ‘reds,’ former nationals of belligerent states).
The Sovereign Citizen is, in most part, a story of courts. In his focus on lawyers and judges, Weil echoes the telling of the Civil Rights Movement as court-led progress and so misses the parallel (at times ahead, at times behind) statutory developments. The hero is a wandering Court that finally comes to its collective senses, realizing that the citizens (including those trouble-makers) are the source of the American republic and in some sense invulnerable to a divestiture of citizenship by the state.
There is a shocking amount of legal chicanery exposed in The Sovereign Citizen, as denaturalization is deployed as a political weapon to remove ‘disloyal’ citizens from the United States. As Weil documents, the government effectively booted out naturalized citizens for acts and speech that we would today view as entirely protected. Legal technique was transparently, if not cynically, constructed to reflect recent statements (or even presumed beliefs) back to the moment of the grant of citizenship. According to this line of reasoning, one who professes certain beliefs held incompatible with American allegiance must have had those same beliefs at the time of the oath; these hidden past beliefs (constructed from more recent manifestations) render the original petition a fraud.
This argument starts as an evidentiary proof and develops into a presumption, consistently referring to the moment of the citizenship oath. Political cases are converted into unremarkable annulments of fraudulently granted citizenship; the political motivation for these retaliatory eliminations of citizenship are masked. Certain courts find as a point of law that allegiance to the United States grows naturally over time. If so, any present ‘disloyalty’ demonstrates the presence of even greater disloyalty at the time of the ‘fraudulent’ oath: a line of reasoning that is both frightening and stupendously farfetched.
Weil carefully traces the development of the law of denaturalization, from its early start of cleaning up irregularities and inconsistencies (as part of an assertion of federal control over naturalization), through its twists and turns as the various forms of 20th Century American intolerance grow and recede, to its eventual decline under the Warren Court. Denaturalization is still with us, but its use is confined to fairly consequential fraud (such as denial of engaging in human rights abuse). Weil avoids speculating as to the social causes of this trajectory; his work is the serious and sufficient work of documentation.