Vol. 33 No. 1 (January 2023) pp. 1-6

YOU ARE NOT AMERICAN: CITIZENSHIP STRIPPING FROM DRED SCOTT TO THE DREAMERS by Amanda Frost. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. pp.248. Cloth: $27.95. ISBN-13:978-0807051429. Paper: $16.95. ISBN-13:978-0807055458.
Vol. 33 No.1 (January 2023) pp. 1-6

AMERICAN BY BIRTH: WONG KIM ARK AND THE BATTLE FOR CITIZENSHIP by Carol Nackenoff and Julie Novkov. Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2021. pp.304. Cloth: $37.50. ISBN-13:978-0700631926. Paper: $27.95. ISBN-13:978-0700634217.

Reviewed by Reviewed by Anna O. Law. Department of Political Science. City University of New York. Brooklyn College. Email:

Citizenship is a concept that most Americans, especially natural-born citizens, only occasionally think about. Perhaps some are temporarily reminded of it when they use it as a passport for foreign travel. But for those politically disfavored individuals and groups who were and are fighting for formal citizenship or to regain lost citizenship, attaining and reclaiming the status was an arduous fight. The lack of or loss of citizenship had negative consequences for their ability to travel, work, hold public office, and avoid deportation.

Two new books, one by a legal scholar and another by two political scientists, illustrate how, in addition to immigration laws that police its geographic borders, nations also use citizenship laws to regulate entry into the political community. As Hannah Arendt famously wrote, before one can enjoy social, political, or civil rights, one must first have citizenship which conveys, “the right to have rights” (Arendt 1976, p. 296-297). The books examine how disfavored groups experienced the lack of citizenship or the loss of status, and how having formal citizenship did not always mean equal treatment.

U.S. citizenship is an antecedent of the English conception of citizenship as perpetual and immutable. The notion then was once a citizen of a nation, always a citizen. The American innovation after the Revolutionary War was to introduce the idea of being able to choose one’s citizenship and to change it over one’s lifetime. But the other side of that double-edged sword is that the nation could also pick and choose which persons and groups to grant citizenship to as an incidence of its national sovereignty (Nackenoff and Novkov 2021, p. 7-27; Kettner 2005). Both AMERICAN BY BIRTH and YOU ARE NOT AMERICAN are case studies of the development of U.S. citizenship in a nation of settler colonialism and slavery.

Recent books by legal scholar Amanda Frost, and political scientists Carol Nackenoff and Julie Novkov on U.S. citizenship are useful to law and courts political scientists, especially those researching and teaching U.S. Constitutional Law, Politics and Law of U.S. Immigration, and Americanists who are interested in racial and ethnic politics. Both books capture the precarity of citizenship and how it was circumscribed by the politics of different eras. Professors Nackenoff and Novkov’s AMERICAN BY BIRTH is an exploration of the history of birthright citizenship through the lens of the landmark case UNITED STATES V. WONG KIM ARK, the case of a native-born Chinese American man who sought citizenship in 1898. Their book is a strong addition to the University of Kansas’ Landmark Law Cases and American Society series.

Nackenoff and Novkov focus on the capacity of the Constitution to provide for equal treatment and the political constraints “on the ground” in different eras of American politics that undercut that promise. It addresses how citizenship was defined in the face of two enduring and competing impulses in the U.S.: “the growth and expansion through generous immigration and integration of new residents, and that of white supremacy” (p. xix). Professor Frost’s YOU ARE NOT AMERICAN analyzes citizenship stripping, or how individuals who had citizenship lost the status, and how it affected them. She similarly attributes these episodes to the U.S. “struggling with its conflicted identity” when it decides to strip someone who previously had citizenship to, “snatch back a status that some conclude, had been given away too lightly” (p. 8). Both books are written in a refreshingly jargon-free and accessible style.

The Law and Courts subfield is dominated by behavioral and attitudinal scholarship. Those studies are powerful in uncovering what judges and justices decide, and what variables influence those legal outcomes. Meanwhile, the legal academy mostly takes a doctrinal approach with casebooks that provide limited historical and political context for landmark cases. One gains from casebooks a mastery of the doctrinal development in a particular area of law, but not always the trajectory of American politics and history. But in landmark cases in constitutional law, often what the justices decided is much influenced by when they decided and what else was happening in the rest of American politics at the time. The American Political Development process tracing that Nackneoff and Novkov employ accomplishes this task well. The Frost book arranges vignettes of different individuals that lost citizenship in chronological order and makes comparisons within chapters of different groups and individuals. Both books convey the specific temporal and political contexts of citizenship, the moments in constitutional history, or even a single date before and after a law is passed, when, “one’s access to rights is completely different.” As Elizabeth Cohen explained it, “Rights derive not just from who we are and where we are but also from when we are” (p. 5, 6).

A strength of both books is that they extend the timeline of analysis forward and backward from the moment specific legal opinions were decided. Nackenoff and Novkov trace the politics and history of the exclusion and deportation policy and the politics involving the Chinese leading up to the Wong Kim Ark case. Their book effectively weaves doctrinal, historical, and political development together. One comes to appreciate the broader trends in citizenship in the U.S., in immigration policy, and where Wong Kim Ark’s case figures into that evolution. Frost’s book also delivers historical and political context but with a different strategy. Instead of a deep dive into one case, she offers vignettes of famous and non-famous people in the development of citizenship. From that montage, one understands how citizenship is unstable because of the range of grounds used to justify stripping, which includes: “race, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, or choice of marriage partner” (p. 192).

Both books also go beyond the time horizon of the standard accounts. Nackenoff and Novkov trace Wong Kim Ark’s story past his legal victory to how his children were treated when they left the U.S. and tried to return when they met with exclusion or forced incarceration each time. Frost also follows several of her subjects beyond their legal battles with the U.S. government. This approach paints a fuller picture of how their legal battles over citizenship affected them and their families in the rest of their lives.

YOU ARE NOT AMERICAN and AMERICAN BY BIRTH effectively explain American citizenship as uneven, selective, and never as capacious as the Nation of Immigrants founding myth suggests. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first time the national government defined how non-native born people could acquire citizenship. It defined naturalization for the first time as open to “any aliens” who were “a free white person.” Their children, up to age 21, could also be naturalized. That law was broad in its inclusiveness of most European migrants, but its racial prerequisite would have repercussions for non-white international migrants and domestic migrants, including free Black people born in the U.S. before the Reconstruction Amendments. As generous as the Naturalization Act of 1790 was to whites, it excluded non-white migrants, women, and Indians “not taxed.” The Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause, meant to repudiate the DRED SCOTT V SANFORD decision, nevertheless had limited effects for African Americans and migrant groups like the Chinese, Mexican, and Central Americans. These two books explain why a constitutional amendment was not enough to ensure the equal treatment of disfavored groups.

The developments in American citizenship, including its sometimes-absurd contradictions, is illustrated in both books with distinct strategies. Frost discusses it in passages in the vignettes where she compares America’s treatment of different groups in the same chapter. One example is in Chapter 5 “Citizen Stateswoman”, on Ruth Bryan Owen’s run for Congress and how her eligibility was questioned because she lost her citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907. That Act stipulated that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” It had the effect of automatically stripping native-born women of their citizenship if they married a foreign man, but did not do the same to native-born men who married foreign women.

In that same chapter, Frost draws a contrast to the parallel moment sixty years before during the Reconstruction era with African American Senator Hiram Rhodes Revel (whose story is described in detail in Chapter 2), the first African American man elected to Congress after the Civil War. Revel, who was the Senator-elect from Mississippi in 1869, had his eligibility to be seated as a U.S. Senator disputed based on his citizenship. The Democrats objected that the Constitution stipulated that Senators “must have been a citizen of the United States for nine years” and according to them, Revel was seven years short. Revel’s supporters retorted that the Thirteenth Amendment retroactively granted him citizenship at his U.S. birth.

Frost traces the parallels of Revel and Owens’ fight to be rightfully seated in Congress based on attacks on their citizenship. She also points out that while the Cable Act of 1922 restored white women’s citizenship (and right to vote), similarly situated non-white native-born women who had their citizenship stripped from marrying a foreign man or a man who was racially barred from naturalizing could not reclaim their citizenship (p. 108, 105). Frost’s choice to pair the stories of Revel and Owens, and Fritz Kuhn and Joseph Kurihara’s stories in Chapter 6, entitled “Blut Citizen”, effectively highlights the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of citizenship stripping.

Nackenoff and Novkov tackle the inconsistencies in American citizenship and the influence of local and national politics. AMERICAN BY BIRTH includes a chapter “Chinese Immigration and the Legal Shift toward Exclusion” to provide political and historical context for how the Chinese became a despised group after being recruited to work in the United States, and how Chinese exclusion that originated in the West and Pacific Northwest spilled over into national politics. The reader is told that after the national consolidation of migration controls from more than a century of state control, the first federal immigration law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned much of Chinese immigration, except for a few narrow categories of merchants, diplomats, teachers, students, and tourists. Their chapter includes the Supreme Court case CHAE CHANG PING V. U.S. (aka “The Chinese Exclusion Case”), in which the Court upholds the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. That broader context of Chinese exclusion is necessary to understand that the fight to ban a native-born man of Chinese descent from citizenship was a backup plan rooted in the same anti-Chinese animus that had seized the country and led to the first federal immigration law to exclude by race. The authors also trace the aftermath of the Wong Kim Ark decision to subsequent debates on citizenship in U.S. territories and with Native people.

There is no explaining American citizenship without tracing the indelible effects of slavery on the nebulousness of national and state citizenships before the Civil War. Both books address this point in their own ways. Nackenoff and Novkov’s first chapter, “The Foundations of American Citizenship”, is an extended discussion of citizenship in the antebellum period. Before the Reconstruction Amendments, the U.S. Constitution barely defined national citizenship and its contents, nor did it say how state citizenship was related, and whether one trumped the other (p. 12, 16). Frost’s first chapter, “Citizen Slave”, contrasts the quest for African American Hiram Rhodes Revel to assume the Senate seat he was elected to, and the restoration of citizenship to Confederates Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, two who had taken up arms against the United States (p. 47). That comparison aptly illustrates the racist double standard of American citizenship.

These two books have overwhelmingly more strengths than weaknesses. And no book can do all things. The broad temporal coverage of these two books means that the authors had to make judgments of inclusion and emphasis of concepts and elements central to their narrative and others that would be covered in passing. Some readers will disagree with their choices. Here are some of my quibbles.

Full disclosure, as someone writing a book on a parallel topic, I would have liked to have seen more theorizing about the distinct and intersectional effects of citizenship in the Frost book, although there are some. For example, Frost observes that states were discriminating against women including, “enabled their husbands to take their wages; barred women from inheriting property, serving as trustees to their family’s estates, or obtaining custody of their children upon divorce; prohibited women from entering a variety of professions; and excluded them from serving on juries or being witnesses in court” (p. 107). All true. Coverture and the public/private sphere ideologies created gendered conceptions of citizenship for women. But, the logic of excluding Black people, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans and Native people are quite distinct. An exposition of these theories is not the aim of the Frost book, nor should it be. Researchers and teachers can read and assign the Frost book with other books and articles.

The Nackenoff and Novkov book includes a tremendous amount of historical material that provides political, historical, and legal context for the Wong Kim Ark decision. The teacher in me marveled at how well they were able to synthesize that information into a clear and engaging narrative. The scholar in me appreciated the inclusion of various dimensions of citizenship, including Native citizenship and implications for the U.S. territories. But, I would have liked to have seen a more sustained discussion of Indian citizenship that acknowledged that Indigenous people did not uniformly agree on the desirability of formal U.S. citizenship. Some Natives believed U.S. citizenship, as conferred by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, was preferable to the paternalistic status of being a “ward of the state”; others rejected U.S. citizenship as a threat and U.S. infringement on Native sovereignty. Various skeptics believed the designation was conditioned on forced assimilation and/or never delivered on full citizenship. Indian citizenship in the United States is itself a complex subject, and one cannot expect deep coverage in a book centered on the birthright citizenship of a native-born Chinese man. In classes on American Citizenship or U.S. Immigration Politics, with the Nackenoff and Novkov book, one could assign Alexandra Wilkin and/or K. Tsianina Lomawaima to cover that dimension of citizenship (Watkins 1995, p. 383 and Lomawaima 2013, p. 343).

A final high point of both books is that although both books are deeply historical, they end with the contemporary relevance of citizenship debates in American politics. Doing so underscores that the scope of citizenship continues to be contested and is a legal status that retains the potential to be weaponized against politically unpopular groups. Today’s targets include: the native-born children of undocumented immigrants, children of birth tourists, people living in U.S. territories, the first mixed-race President and Vice President who are children of immigrants, native-born citizens who do not have documentary proof of citizenship, and naturalized citizens who may have made errors in their paperwork. Both books led this reader, and probably others, to the conclusion, “[i]f U.S. citizenship has been so arbitrary and biased, maybe the nation should not make basic rights and protections contingent upon such a flimsy foundation.”

On balance, whether one is a specialist in the field of U.S. citizenship and immigration policy and law, or a newcomer hoping to learn more, there is something valuable and new for you. Both books deliver a textured understanding of the unsteady development of American citizenship, and will be fantastic additions to one’s syllabi or works cited pages.


DRED SCOTT V. SANFORD, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)

CHAE CHAN PING V. U.S., 112 U.S. 580 (1889)


Arendt, Hannah. 1976. THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM. New York: A Harvest Book.


Kettner, James H. 2005. DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN CITIZENSHIP, 1608-1870. North Carolina: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. 2013. “The Mutuality of Citizenship and Sovereignty: The Society of American Indians and the Battle to Inherit America”, AMERICAN INDIAN QUARTERLY, Vol. 37, No. 3 pp. 333-351.

Witkin, Alexandra. 1995. “To Silence a Drum: the Impositions of United States Citizenship on Native Peoples”, HISTORICAL REFLECTIONS/RÉFLEXIONS HISTORIQUES, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp 353-383.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Anna O. Law.