The American Historical Association has announced the Presidential Address of Linda K. Kerber, Univ. of Iowa, at the Association's annual meeting in Atlanta, January 5, 2007. Her topic is: "The Stateless as the Citizen's Other." She will begin, she writes, "by asking the playful but deeply tragic question: what passport could the ill-fated child of Madame Butterfly and Captain Pinkerton carry? Normally historians do not turn to an opera libretto for inspiration, but the story, which has captivated audiences throughout the world for a century, and which was regenerated in our own time as Miss Saigon, carries with it hints that help us map the landscape of statelessness in U.S. history, from the founding generation to the present.
Although statelessness is often treated by U.S. historians as belonging to other national histories—gypsies, Jews in Europe before 1945, Palestinians today—it has also lurked in the American national experience. Among those most vulnerable have been the enslaved, Native Americans, and U.S.-born women married to foreign men whose countries did not embrace them. When Hannah Arendt wrote memorably about the subject a half-century ago, statelessness was technically a term of the legal art, describing the limited class of people who lack a passport. In our own historical moment some privileged groups even enjoy multiple passports, yet the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship has come under severe attack, a threat that makes likely the increase of statelessness. As protections of citizenship erode for trafficked women and other laborers and for refugees who are refused asylum, the ranks of the stateless increase—in experience if not always explicitly in law. The stateless are constructed even as citizenship is made more accessible. Indeed, the meanings of citizenship—particularly in terms of access to state protection—may be changing. I shall try to examine the vulnerabilities of American citizenship in historical context, with attentiveness to the interaction between the United States and the world."