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Perez v. Brownell

Significance

Citing Congress's implied power to direct foreign affairs, the Court said the legislature could expatriate U.S. citizens who voted in another country's elections. Some voluntary actions that Congress deemed harmful to the country were sufficient grounds for revoking U.S. citizenship.

Until 1868, the U.S. Constitution did not explicitly spell out who was an American citizen. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified that year, granted U.S. citizenship and its benefits to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, also gave Congress the power to regulate the naturalization process, but it did not mention how--or if--Congress could take away the right of citizenship. Congress, however, did recognize that Americans could voluntarily renounce their citizenship, and the Supreme Court found some instances in which certain acts--such as marrying a foreigner and moving to the spouse's homeland--amounted to a voluntary expatriation. But, was voting in a foreign election one of those voluntary acts? That question was at the crux of Perez v. Brownell.

Clemente Perez was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1909, making him an American citizen. When Perez was 10 or 11, his parents moved to Mexico; only some years later did they tell him he was an American citizen. Perez lived in Mexico until 1943, when he reentered the United States as an alien worker. Perez did not want to admit he was a U.S. citizen; since World War II was underway, he would have had to register for the draft. As an American, Perez should have returned to register when the war broke out, a provision of the Nationality Act of 1940. Not registering was punishable by loss of citizenship. Instead, Perez shuttled between America and Mexico through 1944, always claiming to be a native-born Mexican.

After the war, Perez tried to enter El Paso as an American citizen. During several immigration hearings, Perez admitted that he had deliberately avoided military service during World War II. He also revealed he had voted in Mexican elections. Under the Nationality Act, this was also grounds for losing citizenship. The government ruled Perez had expatriated himself and ordered him out of the country.

Perez made one more try to reclaim his citizenship. In 1952 he entered America as an immigrant worker. When immigration officials picked him up the next year, his visa was no longer valid. To avoid deportation, Perez again asserted his American citizenship and again he was rebuked. Perez then took the matter to court, but both the U.S. District Court and Ninth Court of Appeals denied Perez's suit to restore his nationality. The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case to address its constitutional issues.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Perez v. Brownell - Significance, Congress Can Seek To Limit "embarrassing" Actions, Fourteenth Amendment Guarantee In Jeopardy