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The citizens a nation and time forgot

  • Article by: DANIEL SWALM
  • January 12, 2013 - 11:58 AM

Elsie was born in the boondocks -- in Skibo Township, Up North, kind of halfway between Duluth and Ely. And when she was born, in the spring of 1891, few places in the Minnesota Arrowhead were, well, boondockier.

And that's important -- the Minnesota part, not so much the boondocks part -- because it set up a whole series of cascading events that ultimately ended with Elsie dying a woman without a country, an involuntary expatriate in the land of her birth.

But before the end, there was a beginning, and that beginning started when the 59th Congress of the United States passed a really bad law (even by congressional standards): The Expatriation Act of 1907.

One provision of the law was this: If an American-born woman, a native-born U.S. citizen, married a legal immigrant, well, then, that woman lost her American citizenship. Poof. Gone. Kaput. Vanished into thin air. Congress, in all its wisdom, didn't trust a woman to be both a good wife to an immigrant husband and a good citizen of the country in which she was born.

Enter Carl, autumn 1911, a Swede just off the trans-Atlantic steamer Princess of Ireland, disembarking at the Port of New York and heading across the Great Lakes to find his future wife in the small Scandinavian fishing village of Two Harbors.

Elsie and Carl met, went dancing, fell in love, got married in 1914, and had three kids -- all the right stuff. Carl worked in the wood shop at the DM&IR rail yards; Elsie stayed home and tended the brood. A pretty good life by the standards of the time, except for the part about losing her citizenship the day she was married.

In 1917, Carl's petition for naturalization was denied because he was a conscientious objector to America's entry into World War I. And with that denial, out the window went Elsie's chance to regain her citizenship, which could have been restored had her husband become a citizen.

So it really had to hurt when, in February 1918, agents of the self-appointed watchdogs of loyalty from something called the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety came around to have Elsie sign the Alien Registration and Declaration of Holdings form that all foreign nationals were legally obliged to fill out -- just to make sure she wasn't secretly supplying lutefisk to the Kaiser (although that probably would have shortened the war considerably).

America was in the throes of a backlash against immigrants and dissenters in those war years. But by 1922, things were turning around, even on the women's-rights front. The suffragettes had won the right to vote by the 1920 elections, and the new Congress passed the Cable Act of 1922 that partially, but incompletely, did away with some of the more egregious provisions of the Expatriation Act.

But even then, the women who were wed to unnaturalized immigrants remained noncitizens.

As for Elsie and Carl, they got by, as did most folks living near the big lake in the north woods, and they quietly went about their lives until the fateful summer of 1926, when, after birthing a still-born child, Elsie died.

Elsie -- from Skibo Township, Minnesota, United States of America -- died a woman without a country. Because even in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, her country didn't think a woman's citizenship birthright was her own to keep.

Fast-forward to the year before America's entry into World War II. Congress, in a rare display of wisdom, decided to rewrite the naturalization laws and passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1940, superseding the Cable Act and doing away, once and for all, with the last hideous vestiges of the Expatriation Act.

Congress finally decided that women who were married to or would marry immigrants would be permitted to keep their U.S. citizenship.

Except, Congress forgot Elsie.

And it forgot thousands like her who also had their American citizenship stolen and didn't live long enough to see justice done. You see, Congress didn't provide for posthumous restoration of citizenship for those women who never lived to make it to the top of that 1940 legislative mountain.

Ironically, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed that good new law, Elsie and her departed sisters lost their last chance to be restored as citizens of the promised land into which they were born.

Today, Elsie rests in the hard ground of Lakeview Cemetery, just off the north shore's Highway 61 -- now and forever a resident of the country that robbed her of her American birthright and forgot her when it came time to make amends.

It's time for Congress to finally get this one right. It should pass a bill that completes the job and provides posthumous restorative justice to all those women wronged and robbed a century ago.

Justice for Elsie.

Justice for all.

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Daniel Swalm lives in Minneapolis. Elsie was the author's grandmother. Visit her at "Justice for Elsie" on Facebook.

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