“American Women Lost Citizenship After Marrying Aliens”
“I remember that happening,” says Jeanne Niotta, in regards to the forced relocation of her grandparents not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Out of fear of another attack, much of the areas close to the California coast were deemed a military zone, making them forbidden for any citizen of an Axis country. Jeanne’s grandfather, Christian Ernst Breunle, came to America in 1917, but hadn’t naturalized by the start of the Second World War. Although Jeanne’s grandmother, Nellie Augusta Willard, was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, her marriage to German born Christian Breunle affected her status as an American.
“When my grandmother married my, I guess you’d say ‘illegal’ grandfather—who came from Germany—she lost her citizenship.”
Like Jeanne, I found the situation odd. The story seemed a bit difficult to believe. After a bit of digging though, I came to a rather shocking realization; the very same thing had happened to my own grandmother. Francesca Rizzotto, a first-generation American, was born in New York City on September 1, 1901. At the age of twenty, she married my great grandfather, a citizen of the Kingdom of Italy. As per the laws of the time, the union forfeited the native born American citizenship of my great grandmother. It wasn’t until the age of forty that France Dragna filed for repatriation. Line (8) of this document indicates, “I lost, or believe that I lost, United States citizenship solely by reason of my marriage on April 30, 1922 to Jack Ignatius Dragna, then an alien, a citizen or subject of Italy, and my marital status with such person is not terminated.” Line (10) reads, “I hereby apply to take the oath of renunciation and allegiance as prescribed in Section 335(b) of the Nationality Act of 1940 to become repatriated and obtain the rights of a citizen of the United States.”
In order to regain a birthright she’d been stripped of, Frances Dragna had to swear an oath to the United States. Her citizenship repatriation paperwork was signed two weeks before the Japanese attacked. My Aunt Frannie Niotta had no idea that the grandmother she’d been named after, had gone through this ordeal, and was in disbelief when she finally read the documentation.
“Why would they do this?” she asked. I wondered the very same thing.
In the summer of 1906, the House of Representatives began to look into ways to resolve a current issue regarding citizenship. “The primary purpose,” printed the Los Angeles Herald, was to “devise means of checking the abuses of American naturalization by persons who take out papers with the deliberate purpose of returning immediately to their native countries” (“May Affect Immigration”). Allegedly, after making it back to their homelands, these new Americans began “claiming immunity” from the “obligations” of their native governments. Perhaps as a result, later that same year the papers began printing reports of reformation in the passport system—primarily in regards to citizenship. On December 21, 1906, The Los Angeles Times hinted that these changes might affect “the status of American women marrying foreigners,” minors, and U.S. citizens living abroad (“American Citizenship”).
Come late February of the following year, Congress passed The Expatriation Bill—also known as the Expatriation Act of 1907. The bill allegedly “fixed” the “status of American women who marry foreigners and of foreign women who marry Americans” (“Fifty-Ninth Congress”). To translate, by marrying a foreigner “an American woman expatriates herself” (Watkins). Naturally, this new “fix” stirred all kinds of problems. “Regarded as foreigners, they have been deprived of their property rights in those of our states forbidding foreigners to hold property” (Watkins). The bill hit women living abroad as well; widows living outside the borders of the U.S. faced issues with collecting their inheritances. Perhaps the only reprieve—if that’s what it can be called—is that after her alien husband died, “her American citizenship” would “be restored.”
American women continued to be robbed of their citizenship for nearly a decade and a half. Things didn’t change for the better until 1922. On September 22, just weeks after the 19th amendment afforded women the right to vote, The Cable Act was introduced.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 12, 1922
Woman’s Equality in Citizenship
One more grievance of woman against man-made laws has been removed by Congress. The Cable act, just signed by the President, provides that an American woman who marries an alien does not lose her citizenship in consequence. In other words, her national allegiance is her own, and not her husband’s. Ordinarily this may make no great difference; the wife makes her husband’s home her own. But during the late war a considerable number of American-born women became automatically enemy aliens, with disastrous results to their property interests in America. By the same act, however, the alien wife does not become an American citizen when her husband does; she must take out her own papers.
The right to vote and the retention of citizenship—it seemed like a double win. Although this proved to be a great triumph for women, the papers also highlighted that “this law is not retrospective” (“Isadora Duncan”). Not all women were being treated equally. The benefits of the new act would not be enjoyed by American born women whose U.S. citizenship had already been stripped. Women who’d gotten married between 1907 and up until the law took hold in 1922 would not have their citizenship restored. Unfortunately, Jeanne Niotta’s grandmother, Nellie Breunle, and my Great Grandma Frances Dragna, fell into this category. My grandmother had just missed the mark; if she had married Jack Dragna five months later, she would have kept her American citizenship. These two ladies weren’t alone though, plenty of their sisters had been robbed as well.
The Washington Times, October 2, 1922
Isadora Duncan to Land Today at Ellis Island
Dancer Married Alien Too Late to Benefit Under Recently Adopted Cable Act.
Isadora Duncan, born in California, but regarded officially as an alien because she married Serge Essenine, a Russian poet, will be landed at Ellis Island today from the steamship Paris and given the usual examination provided for aliens, according to immigration officials at the Department of Labor.
A week after Congress approved the Cable Act the papers announced that “women married to aliens will not be permitted to register as voters,” which meant in addition to being stripped of their citizenship they would now be barred from participating in the first ever wave of women voters in the upcoming November election (“Ruling on Voting”). With so much now at stake, women began to take a deeper look at their own statuses. But he question of whether or not the act applied in their specific instance, and whether or not they were legally a citizen, would confuse womankind for years to come (Hacker). To further upset matters, and to make dual-citizenship marriages even more difficult to manage, a 1936 act granted repatriation to women who divorced their alien husbands.
When exactly Frances Dragna learned that she’d lost her citizenship, I couldn’t say; however, it’s a safe bet that once she learned about a new clause she took action. The clause stipulated that if an “alien husband became a naturalized U.S. citizen after the marriage,” his American born wife “would regain her citizenship through the very husband with whom she had lost it” (Hacker 3). I’ll bet Grandma Frances really urged Grandpa Jack to naturalize. And according to the paperwork, he’d been trying. Jack Dragna declared intent shortly after the Christmas of 1937, and after being denied, he kept trying.
According to the research of Meg Hacker, The Archives Director at The National Archive, the 1907 act stipulated that a woman in this predicament was “tethered to her husband through his political or legal standing,” which basically stated that “If the United States, for whatever reason, would not grant him citizenship, it would not extend any repatriation opportunities to his wife” (3). Unfortunately for my great grandparents, this proved to be a problem that never went away.
Over the years, letters begging clarification of the various acts infrequently made their way to newspaper editors. Women wanted to know whether or not they were considered an alien. And come 1940, with all the action going on overseas, such efforts picked up excessively. Things hadn’t gone over too well for alien women during the First World War, and no one wanted to see a repeat during the second. But something more than war stirred all these letters—another act had passed (“President Signs”).
The Fresno Bee, June 23, 1940
Congress Aids Women To Regain Citizenship
Washington, June 22—Congress approved legislation today to facilitate repatriation of American women who lost their citizenship by marrying aliens. The measure sent to the White House provides that a woman now married to an alien, but who has resided in the United States continuously since the date of marriage may apply to a federal court for restoration of citizenship, paying a fee of $1 when repatriation is granted.
President Roosevelt made it official when he patriotically signed the Repatriation Bill on the 4th of July. In addition to benefiting married women, the new act also assisted alien children. “The President also approved a bill permitting aliens who enter the United States under the age of 16 to become naturalized after they are 21 without making a formal declaration of intention” (“President Signs”).
Despite all the progress, and despite my Grandpa Jack’s efforts, his status remained that of resident alien. He passed in the mid 50’s as a citizen of the Kingdom of Italy. Under directive of the new act though, Grandma Frances Dragna was finally able to regain what had been so unjustly taken nearly two decades earlier. As I’ve pointed out though, the U.S. entered the war shortly after, and that brought on much more pressing issues for Italians living in America.
The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a day that will “live on in infamy,” did far more than just draw Americans into the fight; it made a new enemy out of “the old country” as well. The gesture of terrorism brought on immense hardships for a great number of noncitizens living in the U.S. Proclamation 2525—signed shortly after the attack—put a target on anyone of Japanese descent. The historical tragedy that followed has been well documented. Less publicized and known, are the ripples of the proclamations signed the following morning, proclamations which affected other ethnic groups: 2526 was geared at Germans; 2527, Italians. Following Pearl Harbor, resident aliens from Axis countries took on a new name, becoming “enemy aliens.” And folks quickly discovered the government wasn’t only after the Japanese. Federal agents started knocking on doors throughout the country mere hours after the attack. Waving Presidential warrants, they began to take people away. Those who remained were subjected to frequent home searches, property confiscation, curfew and travel restrictions, forced relocation, and even internment. Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese were not the only ones taken.
Just slightly outside of the prohibited zone, Jack and Frances Dragna along with their children Frankie and Anna escaped relocation. But Jeanne Niotta’s grandparents were not as fortunate.
“When World War II broke out they lived in Inglewood.”
The Breunle family home sat roughly half a dozen miles from the waters of Dockweiler Beach.
“They had to move from the ocean. They had to move inland. That’s why they moved from Inglewood to Alhambra.”
The move put the family another twenty miles from the water, where the War Department felt they would be less of a threat. At the time Mr. and Mrs. Breunle found out they would have to move, they were attending night classes at a local high school in order to gain their citizenship—Jeanne’s grandfather for the first time, and her grandmother to get back what marriage had stolen. The military directives put a halt to all that though.
Sifting through a box of old family photos and documents shortly after her mother’s passing, Jeanne came across some surprising documents. Among these contents were her Grandma Nellie’s U.S. birth certificate, her grandparents’ marriage certificate, and an alien registration card for each of them. Digging further, Jeanne uncovered two graduation certificates from Inglewood High’s prep course for the citizenship exam. Also in the pile, sat Grandpa Christian’s certificate of naturalization and repatriation paperwork for Grandma Nellie; after all that they’d finally made it.
“American Citizenship: Sweeping Reforms Planned.” The Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1906, p. 5.
“Congress Aids Women to Regain Citizenship.” The Fresno Bee, 23 June 1940, p. 3-A.
“Fifty-Ninth Congress. Closing Session.” The Los Angeles Times, 28 February 1907, p. 4.
Hacker, Meg. “When Saying ‘I Do’ Meant Giving Up Your U.S. Citizenship.” Prologue, Summer, 1998. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2014/spring/citizenship.pdf
“Isadora Duncan to Land Today at Ellis Island.” The Washington Times, 2 October 1922.
“May Affect Immigration: House Committee on Foreign Affairs Seeks Light Regarding Laws and Practices.” Los Angeles Herald, 10 July 1906, p. 1.
“President Signs Repatriation Bill: Citizenship Restored to Wives of Aliens.” The Los Angeles Times, 4 July 1940, p. 3.
Presidential Proclamation. No. 2525. Alien Enemies—Japanese. 7 December 1941. Retrieved from http://www.foitimes.com/internment/Proc2525.html
Presidential Proclamation. No. 2526. Alien Enemies—German. 8 December 1941. Retrieved from http://www.foitimes.com/internment/Proc2526.html
Presidential Proclamation. No. 2527. Alien Enemies—Italian. 8 December 1941. Retrieved from http://www.foitimes.com/internment/Proc2527.html
“Ruling on Voting Status of Women Married to Aliens.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 September 1922, p. 15.
Watkins, John. “Expatriation of Thousands of Truant Americans.” The Evening Star [Washington]. 30 Nov. 1907.
“Woman’s Equality in Citizenship.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 October 1922.