Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Expatriation of Ancilla

During a 15-year period in the early 20th century, American women who married foreign-born men lost their U.S. citizenship and legally acquired the nationality of their immigrant spouse.

On May 30, 1909, my great-grandmother Ancilla, born and raised in Denver, Colorado, married Italian immigrant Carmine.

As they exchanged their vows at the altar of Denver's Mount Carmel Church, Ancilla's U.S. citizenship was stripped from her by the Expatriation Act of 1907 and she became a de facto Italian citizen, despite never having set foot in Italy.

Carmine and Ancilla wedding photo

The Expatriation Act of 1907

In a recent article published in the NGS Magazine, professional genealogist Rich Venezia noted that the Expatriation Act "...was fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and a desire to prevent dual citizenship." Between 1907 and 1922, the legislation resulted in American women forfeiting "...their American citizenship simply by marrying unnaturalized immigrants."

The law was challenged in 1915 and was heard by the Supreme Court, which upheld its legality. It wasn't until 1922 that provisions were first made to change the law's perspective on these women's citizenship status. Subsequent legal amendments in the ensuing years - particularly in 1936 - outlined a path for these women to reacquire their American citizenship by taking an oath of allegiance.

An American Repatriated

On August 5, 1941, Ancilla completed government form N-415, an Application to Take Oath of Allegiance to the United States Under Act of June 25, 1936, and applied " take the oath of renunciation and allegiance as prescribed in Section 335 (b) of the Nationality Act of 1940 (54 Stat. 1157) to become repatriated and obtain the rights of a citizen of the United States."

In section eight, she stated, "I lost, or believe that I lost, United States citizenship solely by reason of my marriage on May 30, 1909 to Carmine then an alien, a citizen or subject of Italy..."

She reassured the court that, "I have resided continuously in the United States since the date of my marriage..." However, she didn't list her marriage date in the space provided on the form. Instead, she provided her birth date - May 27, 1893. Ancilla was, I believe, indicating that she had never traveled overseas and had been a U.S. resident her entire life. It underscored the ridiculousness of the absurd legislation that stripped her of her citizenship and forcibly made her the subject of a country she had never visited.

On October 20, 1941, Ancilla took the official Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance, declaring, on oath, that she "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen..."

On her oath, she regained what had been forcibly taken from her.

Thirty-two years after her marriage, at the age of 48, this peculiar chapter in Ancilla's life came to an end. She was once again recognized by her home country as a citizen with all of the associated legal rights. With Mussolini's fascist Italy on the rise, it was, perhaps, a timely move on her part and quite fortuitous with the United States hurtling towards World War II.   


  1. Wow, I never knew about this. How awful! Not only anti-immigrant, but terribly sexist. I assume men didn't lose their citizenship by marrying a foreign born man. I am glad that your GGM had the guts to stand up for her rights and regain her rights as a US citizen.

    Did her husband naturalize? Would her citizenship have been restored automatically if he did? Or did it not matter whether he was naturalized or not?

    1. You're correct. American men marrying immigrant women did not lose their citizenship.

      Her husband did eventually naturalize, but not until the late 1950's. I'm not exactly sure whether she would have automatically had her citizenship restored or if she still would have had to complete a form.

      I do wonder why she filled out the form when she did. I wonder if something necessitated her having her citizenship.

  2. Maybe she saw war coming and wanted to be sure she could vote in the elections to come in 1942 and 1944?

    1. I bet you're right. I'm sure, with Mussolini in power, they had connections to the Italian community and news that made clear that conflict was on the horizon.

  3. Maybe she noticed how US-born people of Japanese descent were being treated and realized how vulnerable she might be?

    1. The internment of the Japanese didn't begin until 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ancilla completed submitted her petition in August 1941. She may have seen an alarming increase, though, in anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric.