Daniel Swalm was researching his family when he came across a disturbing episode in immigration history. That discovery would lead to a move in the U.S. Senate to apologize for action the nation took a century ago.
Swalm discovered that under a 1907 law, his grandmother Elsie, born and raised in Minnesota, was stripped of her U.S. citizenship after marrying an immigrant from Sweden. Swalm had never heard of the Expatriation Act that required a U.S.-born woman who married a foreigner to "take the nationality of her husband."
Swalm, who lives in Minneapolis, found out about the law when he stumbled across an alien registration form filled out by Elsie Knutson Moren. "I could not figure out why Grandma Elsie had to fill one out, because she was born in the United States," he said.
The law has caught others by surprise, too.
"There are all these people doing their genealogy, and they come across relatives who were declared alien enemies during World War I, and they're trying to figure out why that would be if they were born in the United States," said Candice Bredbenner, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
The law, passed at a time of heightened anxiety over the growing numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, came in response to a belief that U.S.-born women marrying foreigners were forsaking their allegiance to the United States, Bredbenner said. "A citizen woman's marriage to a foreigner became vulnerable to interpretation as a brazenly un-American act," she wrote in her book, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship.
At the time, magazines wrote about American women marrying European nobility in pursuit of titles. "For some Americans, a titled American was an affront to American ideals," Bredbenner wrote. But thousands who lost their citizenship were average women who lived in immigrant communities.
After women pushed to win the right to vote — secured when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920 — Congress in 1922 acted to allow most, but not all, American-born women who married foreigners to be U.S. citizens. But those who married men ineligible for citizenship, such as Chinese immigrants, still forfeited their U.S. citizenship, until that restriction was later repealed.
Swalm heard from descendants of other U.S.-born women stripped of their citizenship. He met with aides to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who has introduced legislation expressing the Senate's regret for passing the 1907 law.
"Our resolution won't scrub history, but it will bring attention to the injustice that these women faced," Franken said.