Last month, we wrote about the “weaponization” of the US dollar – Uncle Sam’s unofficial policy of holding the greenback as a hammer over the heads of its adversaries.
But governments have other non-monetary weapons at their disposal to achieve their foreign policy goals. One of them is citizenship.
Ancient Rome used this strategy when it conquered new territories. Its rulers routinely awarded Roman citizenship to individuals who performed services for the empire, giving them a stake in Rome’s fortunes, and a powerful incentive to defend Roman rule.
More recently, we’ve seen this phenomenon at work in Russia’s policy of “passportization” in neighboring countries it wishes to control. It goes like this; Moscow protests that Russian-speaking citizens are being oppressed by a neighboring foreign government. When that government fails to meet Russia’s demands to protect its Russian-speaking citizens, the Russian military intervenes to protect them. Before, after, or during the intervention, Moscow awards citizenship and Russian passports to Russian speakers in the region.
Those regions may become quasi-independent, as in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both formerly provinces of Georgia, which was itself one of the Soviet Union’s “republics.” Or they may be formally annexed by Russia, as was Crimea.
But other countries also use passportization as an instrument of foreign policy. For instance, in 2011, Hungary amended its citizenship law to expand the right of citizenship by ancestry. The new law gave at least five million ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine the right to apply for Hungarian citizenship.
The law is controversial, because the countries bordering Hungary believe that the Hungarian government could eventually use the Russian strategy of taking over territory where a large number of ethnic Hungarians live. But so far, that hasn’t occurred.
Passportization can be a net benefit to those who are awarded citizenship in a country based on their ethnic background. That’s especially true if they don’t reside in an unstable border region. For instance, we encourage our clients with Hungarian ancestry to apply for citizenship in that country. After all, a Hungarian passport is one of the world’s best travel documents, with visa-free access, or visa on arrival, to 183 countries.
But there’s a reverse trend we’ll call “de-passportization” that’s far more harmful. It involves the wholesale revocation of citizenship from an ethnic or religious group by national authorities, often followed by their expulsion or incarceration. Nazi Germany used this strategy to strip millions of Jewish Germans of their citizenship. The vast majority had no other citizenship, so they either fled Germany to seek refuge in other countries as stateless persons or were herded into Nazi concentration camps.
Since then, many other incidents of de-passportization have occurred:
In 1962, Syria stripped as many as 120,000 ethnic Kurds of their citizenship, as part of an effort to “Arabize” the region where they lived.
In 1982, Myanmar enacted a law which effectively deprived citizenship to more than one million of its Rohingya ethnic and religious minority inhabitants. In 2017, the government forced most Rohingya residents out of the country in a brutal ethnic cleansing operation. It then forced those that remained to accept identity cards identifying them as foreigners, making it impossible for them to claim Myanmar citizenship.
In 2013, a court decision in the Dominican Republic effectively revoked the citizenship of at least 70,000 Haitians living in the country. Many of them had ancestors who had lived there for generations.
In 2018, India stripped more than four million people of their citizenship.
Readers who are US citizens will understandably be relieved to see the United States is not on this list. Yet Uncle Sam has a long and disconcerting history of denying citizenship to ethnic minorities.
In 1790 – only a year after 13 former British colonies ratified the Constitution – Congress enacted the Naturalization Act. This law limited the right of naturalization to white Americans. Sixty-seven years later, in 1857, the Supreme Court declared that Americans of African descent were not and could never be citizens of the United States.
But only 11 years later, the 14th Amendment came into effect, which granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States. The amendment gave millions of former slaves the same rights and privileges of citizenship as white Americans.
Once again, the Supreme Court stepped in to ensure that only some native-born Americans could enjoy the full rights of citizenship. In the 1870s, the court upheld state laws forbidding women to vote or to work in male-dominated occupations. In the 1890s, it upheld laws enacted in southern states enshrining racial segregation; in effect, second-class citizenship for black Americans.
Congress was also hard at work to exclude what it felt were other undesirable ethnic groups from citizenship. In 1882, it enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. And despite the language of the 14th Amendment, the law also forbade any state or federal court from awarding US citizenship to anyone of Chinese ancestry.
As well, from 1907 to 1931, female US citizens who married foreigners lost their citizenship. Native Americans who occupied the territory that now constitutes the United States for thousands of years weren’t given citizenship until 1924. Indeed, race or ethnic based exclusions to citizenship didn’t end altogether until 1965.
But while no wholesale ethnic or religious exclusions to US citizenship remain in place, de-passportization is alive and well in America today. Take the case of Hoda Muthana, for instance. Born in New Jersey, Muthana left the United States in 2014 to join the Islamic State in Syria. But in 2019, a federal court ruled that Muthana wasn’t a US citizen. Thus, she had no right to return to the US from Syria, where she and her toddler son were detained in a refugee camp. The decision was upheld on appeal, and earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Muthana is hardly a sympathetic figure. Once she arrived in Syria, she married an Islamic State fighter and called for terror attacks against civilians in the United States. She even burned her US passport, claiming she didn’t need it since she was part of the Islamic State.
You might be thinking that Muthana’s case is so extreme that it couldn’t possibly affect you. And under current law, that might be true if you’re a native-born citizen, although not necessarily if you’ve been naturalized. But in 2016, Senator Raphael “Ted” Cruz (R.-Texas) introduced a bill that would expand the list of offenses for which an American could lose their citizenship. Providing “material assistance” to a “foreign terrorist organization” is one such offense.
You might be wondering what “material assistance” to a terrorist group is. The Cruz proposal doesn’t define it, but in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that you could “materially support” terrorism simply by providing advice on how to “peacefully resolve disputes” to a person or group designated “terrorist.”
You read that correctly. Non-violent actions that have nothing to do with terrorism constitute “material support.”
To be clear, Cruz’s proposal never became law. But if a bill with similar provisions ever comes into effect, there’s little doubt that a flood of citizenship revocations will follow. Many will no doubt be related to actual terrorist acts. But any American doctors, missionary, or anyone else providing any kind of service to individuals or groups deemed “terrorists” or “terrorist organizations” could be affected. Activists across the political spectrum, from opponents of abortion to members of the Antifa movement, could likewise lose their citizenship for engaging in non-violent protest.
From the government’s standpoint, the ability to revoke citizenship for what are essentially political crimes is very useful. Once you lose your citizenship, you also lose your ability to travel internationally, as well as any diplomatic protections your country extends to its citizens. You must apply for a visa to reenter your own country, which will now be denied due to your alleged “terrorist activities.” And if you don’t already have another citizenship, you become stateless – a person without a country.
Hoda Muthana’s case proves that Uncle Sam is perfectly capable of using the loss of nationality as a weapon against its political enemies. Given this reality, it only makes sense to obtain a second citizenship and passport, just in case.