After a century, Two Harbors woman in line to receive posthumous apology from U.S. government
TWO HARBORS -- Last year newspaper readers learned the story of Elsie Moren, a northeast Minnesota native whose marriage to an immigrant in the early part of the 20th century resulted in the loss of her U.S. citizenship.
Now, decades later, the U.S. Senate is pondering a resolution offering a posthumous apology to the Two Harbors woman and thousands of others like her.
Moren lost her citizenship thanks to a little-known act passed by the U.S. government in the early 1900s. The law rendered any woman who married a foreign-born man a noncitizen, regardless of where she was born. When her grandson, Daniel Swalm of Minneapolis, found out about the act and its consequences, he made it his personal mission to get an official apology for his grandmother.
Just last week, 15 months after he began his quest, Swalm declared victory. Sens. Al Franken and Ron Johnson — a Democrat from Minnesota and a Republican from Wisconsin, respectively — introduced a resolution in the Senate apologizing to the women affected by the Expatriation Act of 1907.
“My resolution helps right a wrong that many have forgotten. This tragic law was repealed decades ago, but it’s part of a struggle for equality that continues today. These women were punished for marrying who they loved, and that’s fundamentally wrong,” Franken said.
Swalm said he is ecstatic. He had his first meeting with Franken’s staff in January 2013, and he said he was ready to give up after more than a year without progress.
“I never thought that it would go anywhere,” he said. “I fully expected them to dismiss me as a goofy crank.”
But they didn’t, and Swalm got an email in mid-March from Franken’s office advising him that something was in the works. The resolution was introduced in the Senate last week and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Bigger than Elsie
Moren was born on the Iron Range and married a legal Swedish immigrant in 1914. She moved to Two Harbors with her new husband and lived on 11th Avenue until her early death in 1926 at age 35 from childbirth complications. She died a noncitizen in her home country.
Candice Bredbenner, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, estimates that tens of thousands of women like Moren were affected by the Expatriation Act of 1907. She wrote a book about the act, “A Nationality of Her Own.”
“These are just your average women. They found themselves unexpectedly in a situation in which they were suddenly told that they were unpatriotic, disloyal … simply for marrying someone that wasn’t a citizen,” Bredbenner said.
The act was retroactive, meaning that women who married immigrants before the law existed also lost their citizenship. Swalm said Franken’s staffers were surprised by the magnitude of the problem.
“They took it seriously,” he said. “They looked at the issue and saw that there was a bigger picture than just Grandma Elsie.”
Swalm found out about Moren’s legal status while researching his genealogy. He found Moren’s alien registration form and started researching why his grandmother, born in Minnesota, was required to fill out a form for immigrants.
His search led him to Bredbenner, the only scholar who has extensively researched the Expatriation Act. She has been sought out by many people like Swalm who have discovered this oddity in their family histories.
“People are shocked that the government would have taken away a native-born’s citizenship and (they don’t) realize how far the anti-immigrant sentiment went in that period,” Bredbenner said.
After Swalm shared his story with media outlets, including the Lake County News-Chronicle, Duluth News Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, at least two other people contacted him with similar stories. A man in New Richmond, Wis., discovered that his grandmother lost her citizenship after marrying a German man. When Sen. Johnson heard his story, he joined Franken to put forward the resolution.
A belated apology
Although parts of the Expatriation Act were repealed in 1922 and it was completely thrown out in 1940, its 30 years on the books affected thousands of families.
The new resolution introduced by Sens. Franken and Johnson names a South Dakota woman who was nearly deported after World War I, a New York woman who lost her teaching job and a California woman who wasn’t allowed to vote even after women gained the right — all results of marrying a foreign national.
Though the resolution can’t right the wrongs those women experienced, Bredbenner said, it’s still a worthy cause.
“I’m sure that the efforts of Swalm really made a difference. I think it’s always worth making a statement like this, even though it’s too late to change the circumstances,” she said.
For Swalm, it’s finally some recognition for his grandmother, who wasn’t permitted to vote even after women gained the right in 1920 and died a woman without a nation.
“It goes to show what one person can do if you’re determined and you have an issue that resonates with people,” Swalm said.