February 8, 1998
c. Newhouse News Service
NEW YORK — Fernando Mateo is a man of boundless citizenship.
A few highlights: A point of light,” in the parlance of President Bush, for his work teaching inmates a trade. This truly amazing American,” in the words of a City Council proclamation honoring his renowned Toys for Guns program to get weapons off the streets. A boyishly charismatic bootstrap businessman who has talked aloud of someday running for mayor.
But, says Mateo from his plaque-dense office in midtown Manhattan, “Now what I want to focus on is making my country the best country in the world. I think we can do that.”
The country in this case, however, is not the United States but Mateo’s native Dominican Republic, where he lived five of his 40 years and where this naturalized American citizen still holds Dominican citizenship.
As the American Century draws to a close, Fernando Mateo is the ultimate embodiment of the little-understood but growing phenomenon of dual citizenship, which directly challenges traditional notions of citizenship and nationhood, of assimilation and American identity.
In the past few months, Mateo has led a blitzkrieg movement that won for Dominicans abroad the right to vote in their homeland’s 2000 presidential election from polling places where they live. Mateo expects the vote from New York and beyond to transform Dominican politics, perhaps even make him president.
If that sounds outlandish, consider Valdas Adamkus, the recently retired Midwest director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who this year was elected president of his native Lithuania with at least a few votes from his hometown of Chicago, Cleveland and other Lithuanian American communities.
If the philosophical and practical questions surrounding dual citizenship have yet to pierce the broader public consciousness, that may be about to change. With the spread of dual voting and, come March, the opportunity for millions of Mexican Americans to regain their Mexican nationality, the phenomenon soon could inflame the already tender issue of American immigration and naturalization policies.
What is at stake?
In a world miniaturized by technology, and in a multicultural milieu that magnifies ethnicity and ancestry as markers of identity, dual citizenship threatens to transform the hyphenated American of yore into the ampersand American of tomorrow — from Dominican-American to quite literally Dominican & American.
It has the potential to reorient immigrant energies in a manner that may slow their assimilation in America even as it hastens the Americanization of their native lands.
“I think what we will see is a delaying, probably by a generation or so, of our integration into American society,” said Manuel Matos, the U.S.-born son of Dominican immigrants who heads the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights in the Dominican heartland of Washington Heights.
But, Matos added, “The flip side is what an enormous opportunity for the U.S. to exert its influence on the world.”
It has the makings of a sort of postmodern political Pax Americana, in which America’s immigrant communities assert American ideals in their nations of origin across the globe.
Adamkus will bring a lifetime of American values, government experience, sympathies and connections to the presidency of Lithuania. It was part of his appeal. And he is only the latest example of an American taking a top job in a former Iron Curtain country, from former Yugoslavian Prime Minister Milan Panic and former Estonian commander in chief Alexander Einseln (the John Wayne of the Baltics”) to former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovanessian. Just last fall another Chicago retiree, Joseph Bernik, placed third in the presidential race in Slovenia.
To its defenders, plural citizenship is something to be celebrated, happy evidence of a smaller, safer, more tolerant world in which the whole idea of airtight nationality and single citizenship is cramped, dated, unfair and maybe even nativist.
There is no way of knowing how many dual citizens there are in America. Many millions are and don’t even know it. Millions more would be eligible with a little paperwork. What is plain is that it is both increasingly possible and increasingly practical.
The United States is particularly prone to dual citizenship for a number of reasons:
*Anyone born in the United States, even if that person is only flying over U.S. airspace at the time of birth and never touches down, is an American citizen, plus whatever other citizenships that person may inherit from his or her parents.
*Ever since a 1967 Supreme Court decision, the United States no longer considers a second citizenship legally problematic, even for naturalized American citizens who had to swear an oath ostensibly renouncing other allegiances.
*America is a nation of immigrants from nations that increasingly permit dual citizenship.
*Descendants of earlier generations of immigrants sometimes can hang on to or regain the citizenship of their ancestors.
For example, there are more than 40 million Americans of Irish descent. Any one of them who can prove he or she had a single Irish grandparent can claim Irish citizenship, without ever having set foot on the old sod.
For Irish American New Yorkers, such as Joanie Madden and members of her band, Cherish the Ladies, or Nora Wertz, a free-lance graphic artist who does the Web page for Rocky Sullivan’s, a popular East Side bar named for an Irish American gangster played by Jimmy Cagney, their effort to reclaim Irish citizenship is a way to honor a heritage they hold dear and to secure a passport that enables them to live or work anywhere in Europe.
But, without moving to Ireland, they would have no voting rights and would not expect them.
“It would be kind of audacious for people like me to imagine that they should be able to vote in the election of a country in which they never lived,” Wertz said.
Both Wertz and Madden say Irish citizenship will remain subordinate to their American identity.
“I know this is the greatest country,” Madden said. “If I had to give up my American passport to get my Irish passport, I wouldn’t do it.”
It was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 1967 involving a U.S.-Israeli citizen that established the liberal U.S. attitude toward dual citizenship.
The court ruled that Beys Afroyim, a Polish-born naturalized U.S. citizen who had moved to Israel and taken citizenship there as well, could not lose his U.S. citizenship for voting in an Israeli election.
Today, as the State Department advised its diplomatic posts in 1995, It is no longer possible to terminate an American’s citizenship without the citizen’s cooperation.”
At the same time, many of the home nations of America’s largest immigrant populations have changed their laws to permit those immigrants dual citizenship and sometimes dual voting rights. More may follow. In last year’s South Korean election, victor Kim Dae Jung promised dual citizenship to Koreans overseas.
The most profound change will come March 21, when a change in the Mexican Constitution will permit millions of Mexican-born U.S. citizens and their U.S.-born children to reclaim their Mexican nationality.
To Leticia Quezada, the first Hispanic to serve on the school board in Los Angeles and now director of the Mexican Cultural Institute there, it will be a great day.
“It is important to me,” said Quezada, who immigrated to the United States at age 13. “I never stopped feeling Mexican. I have become a United States citizen because this is where I live, where I have made my professional life. I have made a commitment, but it’s sort of an intellectual commitment, whereas emotionally I’m Mexican. I want to be Mexican. I feel very close to the country of my birth.”
Quezada thinks that permitting dual nationality will encourage Mexicans in America to become citizens here because they will not have to relinquish their property, travel rights or the Mexican immigrant dream of returning home to buy a business or retire. Nor will they feel they are repudiating their homeland.
In the past, she said, many Mexicans in America truly believed that to become a U.S. citizen, “you had to stomp or spit on the Mexican flag.”
But another change in Mexican law does worry Quezada, as it does political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza of the Tomas Rivera Center, which studies issues of concern to Latin Americans.
A Mexican government commission is studying ways to enable absentee voting, perhaps in time for the 2000 election. At least for now, it would apply only to Mexican nationals abroad who are not citizens of another country. But that still would include millions of Mexicans living in the United States. De la Garza said the image of Mexican candidates campaigning from Los Angeles to Chicago with Mexican flags waving would stir broad enmity toward Mexican Americans in general.
And, Quezada said, the timing is bad. “The 150th anniversary of the war in which Mexico lost half of its territory, including Texas, California and part of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, is the wrong time to bring up all these conflicting emotions about who does this land belong to.”
As bad, said de la Garza, would be if Mexicans in America proved the swing vote in a close election back home.
“Why would Mexico want Mexicans in the United States to determine the political future of Mexico?” he asked.”I think that’s insane.”
But it is precisely that leverage that Mateo hopes the million or more Dominicans in America will exert on the Dominican Republic.
Already the Dominican Republic floats on a sea of remittances, some $1.3 billion a year from Dominicans abroad, who also bankroll its politics. It is financial power Mateo said he wielded in winning voting rights for Dominicans abroad, and power that will enhance their new electoral strength, in what he describes as a campaign by Dominican Americans to clean up, modernize and democratize their native land.
But to Moises Perez, executive director of Alianza Dominicana, the largest Dominican community-based organization in the United States, Mateo’s dream is “horribly paternalistic” and tone- deaf to broader American reaction.
“Other Americans will look at these arrangements and ask, Why don’t you want to be Americans?”’ Perez said. It goes against the grain of what the United States stands for.”
But, said Mateo,” if Dominican New Yorkers succeed in saving the homeland, I think everybody wins. The U.S. right now is very anti-immigrant. I think the more opportunities we create in our country, the less immigrants there will be to the United States.”