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Opinion
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Commentary: Native US Virgin Islanders should be entitled to Danish citizenship
Published on April 11, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

By Wayne A.G. James

US Virgin Islanders who officially reside in the islands and can trace their ancestry back to the Danish era (1671 – 1917) should be entitled to automatic Danish citizenship, whether they decide to renounce their United States citizenship or obtain dual citizenship of Denmark and the United States.

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Wayne A.G. James is a former Senator of the United States Virgin Islands and former Senate Liaison to the White House
The request of US Virgin Islanders for automatic Danish citizenship is separate and distinct from any claim for reparations or the redressing of past wrongs. To the contrary, the request is a claim for the redress of a present, ongoing wrong: Many US Virgin Islanders, in 2017, still feel part-Danish; many US Virgin Islanders are, by blood, part-Danish; and many US Virgin Islanders feel that they have earned the right to Danish citizenship because of the 246 years of service and contribution to the Danish nation. In essence, many US Virgin Islanders feel that Danish citizenship is their birthright.

But despite the undeniable connection between US Virgin Islanders and Denmark, islanders have never been offered, been deemed worthy of, or been declared entitled to Danish citizenship. And that deliberate disregard is fundamentally unfair and should be remedied. The world has changed. Long-held views about race, privilege, miscegenation, xenophobia, and colonialism, for example, have fallen by the wayside since the dawning of the new millennium. “Tolerance,” “multi-culturalism,” “political correctness,” and “inclusion” are the new order of the day. And Denmark should act accordingly vis-à-vis US Virgin Islanders.

Unlike people from many other nationalities who arrive upon Danish shores, oftentimes with no historical connection to the kingdom of Denmark, the people of the United States Virgin Islands do not need Danish citizenship in order to improve their lives. US Virgin Islanders are not seeking Danish citizenship in order to avoid political or religious persecution in their homeland or to improve their economic condition, further their education, or obtain better living conditions.

Americans have not historically been known for seeking asylum and refugee status in foreign lands. US Virgin Islanders are Americans. And as such, they are, by birth, citizens of the wealthiest country on Earth; the United States Constitution entitles them to the coveted civil rights of freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and movement; many of the world’s foremost universities and institutions of higher learning are situated in the United States; the separation of church and state as well as religious freedom and tolerance are hallmarks of American culture; the United States is one of the most industrially and technologically advanced nations on the planet; and Americans generally do not emigrate to other countries in search of opportunity.

To the contrary, Americans, because of their individual wealth, generally invest in foreign lands. And their pension plans and social security system are the envy of many nations. Furthermore, it is irrefutable that American talent has shaped the cultural arts and sports the world over. Americans tend to enhance, rather than detract from, the cultures they embrace. And the proverbial “American Dream” remains a beacon for people all over the world seeking success. But the fact that US Virgin Islanders are fortunate to be Americans should not negate their fundamental right to also be Danish.

Historical Overview

The US Virgin Islands was owned by the kingdom of Denmark for just shy of 250 years. And it is just 100 years ago that the islands lost their official connection to Denmark. Consequently, there are still a few people alive in the islands who were born in the Danish era. And Denmark is ever-present in the islands: Most of the written recorded history of the US Virgin Islands begins with Danish colonization in the 17th century; the towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, and Frederiksted are all named in honor of Danish monarchs; the US Virgin Islands telephone directory is punctuated with Danish surnames such as Petersen, Larsen, Hansen, Ovesen, Jeppesen, Jensen, Rasmussen, Christensen, Fredriksen, and Johansen, all people who are today classified as black; street names in the three historic towns end in “gade”; Danish-inspired foods comprise and partly define the traditional local cuisine; Danish West Indies colonial furniture is considered one of the great US Virgin Islands contributions to the decorative arts of the world; the historic documents that connect present-day US Virgin Islanders to the sometimes-elusive ancestors are written in Danish hand upon Danish parchment oftentimes in the Danish language. Danish-era buildings are found throughout the islands and remain the foremost architectural monuments of the islands; Danish flags still fly atop flagstaffs.

Despite the passage of time and the international dominance of American culture, the Virgin Islands and many Virgin Islanders, in many ways, still feel as much Danish as American.

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The Cession of Danish West Indies, the treaty governing the sale and transfer of the Danish West Indies to the Unites States of America, was signed in New York on August 4, 1916; ratified by Denmark on December 22, 1916; ratified by the president of the United States on January 16, 1917; with the exchange of ratifications taking place the following day in Washington, DC, on January 17, 1917, the treaty thereby becoming official. The treaty (39 Stat. 1706; Treaty Series 629) specifies that Danish citizens residing in the islands at the time of the transfer are allowed to remain or leave at will, retaining all their property rights.

Danish citizens wishing to preserve their Danish citizenship could do so by making the declaration before a court of record within one year of the exchange of ratifications of the treaty. Danish citizens who elected not to preserve their Danish citizenship within the one-year period were deemed to have relinquished their Danish citizenship and accepted US citizenship. And Danish citizens who had first elected to preserve their Danish citizenship but subsequently decided to renounce it could elect the citizenship of the United States (Article 6). The sale agreement, therefore, was careful to ensure the smooth diplomatic transition of the islands’ relatively small, white, Danish-citizen population. But little or no guidance was provided as to the nationality status of the islands’ much larger black population, simply referred to in the treaty as “subjects.”

In fact, the only provision of the treaty that was directly related to the islands’ black population was Article 7: “Danish subjects residing in the Islands shall be subject in matters civil as well as criminal to the jurisdiction of the courts of the Islands, pursuant to the ordinary laws governing the same, and they shall have the right to appear before such courts, and to pursue the same course therein as citizens of the country to which the courts belong.”

The treaty’s loud silence on the future diplomatic status and well-being of the islands’ black population is, apparently, intentional since the document and its accompanying “Exchange of Notes” and “Declaration” are careful to address topics as wide and varied as intellectual property rights; the honoring of the Danish government’s contract with one Ejnar Svendsen for him to construct and operate an electrical plant in Christiansted; the assurance that the Danish National Church in the Danish West Indian Islands (the Lutheran Church, also locally called “Dane Church”) would be able to operate under the principles of Freedom of Religion and would be treated as any other church in the Virgin Islands of the United States; etc.

But despite the fact that the Danes were acutely aware that the American Civil War (1861-1865) between the northern and southern States of the United States – a mere 52 years prior to the Transfer – was, primarily, over the right for slavery to exist in the United States; of the internationally acknowledged fact that post-Emancipation America was fertile ground for discrimination against black people, harsh segregation laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching; and that the local black population, though technically free to leave the islands in search for a better life elsewhere – even if as immigrants – did not have the emotional or financial wherewithal to emigrate for opportunities elsewhere, for example, not one word, let alone Article, was included in the treaty to protect or provide for the civil rights or nationality status of the black people of the islands upon the transfer of the islands to the United States.

A year after the exchange of ratifications, a Danish citizen could become a full-fledged American citizen by default; but the islands’ black population, which, even after 246 years had never been offered Danish citizenship, was not granted eleventh-hour Danish citizenship as a farewell gift so that they, too, could seamlessly and automatically transition, per the terms of the treaty, into American citizenship, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

The Danish disregard for the black population in the islands becomes undeniable in the treaty, for the onus was on Denmark, not with the United States, for ensuring the black population’s rights and privileges in the transfer treaty. But Denmark infamously dropped the ball. Alas, it did not even pick it up. Consequently, the general sentiment amongst the islands’ black population was one of sadness, uncertainty, and confusion, with glimmers of hope for a brighter future. As was said time and time again – mantra-like – by the black population during the whole process, “We know what we had, but we don’t know what we will get.”

Furthermore, the black population had no legal standing upon which to proactively seek American citizenship. In essence, the islands’ black population had for over two centuries been on the fringe of Danish society, and the treaty was structured for them to be indefinitely on fringe of American society. For many islanders, Transfer was a matter of “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know.” And the anecdotal record is replete with islanders shedding tears on March 31, 1917. The terms of the treaty made it undeniably clear that Denmark was turning her back on her black family, many of whom had Danish blood flowing in their veins and Danish surnames in their mouths.

Treaty aside, even if Denmark did not want its former black colonial subjects in Denmark proper, it could have offered to transport willing islanders back to the shores of West Africa. Alternatively, Denmark could have created the equivalent of Great Britain’s Sierra Leone (founded in 1800) and America’s Liberia (founded in 1821) – even if on the island of Greenland or Iceland – as safe haven for Virgin Islanders. (It is clear from the record that Greenland was very much in the forefront of the Danish psyche at the time of Transfer since, while disposing of the Danish West Indies, Denmark was also sure to ensure that Greenland, its Nordic island of continental proportions, would be free and clear of any American intervention.

Thus, the United States declared, as part of the treaty (in the Declaration), “that the Government of the United States will not object to the Danish Government extending their political and economic interests to the whole of Greenland.” Yet, Greenland as a new home for willing Virgin Islanders was not considered. [Yes, Greenland is a harsh land, but slavery was infinitely much harsher. And as the native Inuit Greenlanders have survived that environment, so would have the slavery-hardened black population.]

Clearly, it was Denmark’s specific intent to abandon the islands’ black population to whatever would come their way. Denmark had reaped the benefits of the islands’ Black labor force for two-and-a-half centuries – as slaves and wet nurses and coopers and cooks and wheelwrights and blacksmiths and lovers and mistresses and maids – then left them, one and all, “high and dry.”

At no point during the Danish era was the islands’ black population legally classified as “citizens” of Denmark (or any of other nation). To the contrary, during the years of Danish slavery (1671-1848), the black population was classified as the “property” or “chattel” of their slave owners, and the small, free, black population was classified as Danish subjects, but not as citizens. Then between Emancipation in 1848 and Transfer in 1917, the islands’ entire black population was classified as Danish subjects, but not as Danish citizens. And while a citizen of a monarchy is by definition a subject, a subject of a monarchy is not by definition always a citizen. Consequently, the islands’ black population was never afforded the opportunity to “retain” or “regain” Danish citizenship as described in the treaty because they never had Danish citizenship in the first place.

What is strongly believed, however, is that had upon Transfer the Danes offered to transport any willing members of the black population to Denmark proper – even if as subjects – so that they could make their lives there, there would have been shiploads of black passengers eager to cross the Atlantic en route to cold, dark, Denmark. But no such offer was to come…

For 246 years, the black population had given its blood, sweat, and tears to the Danish nation and her people. (Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, was the second-largest city in the kingdom of Denmark in the 19th century, second only to Copenhagen, and Christiansted was amongst the top ten, evidence of the significance of the West Indies colonies to the Danish kingdom.) Then, on March 31, 1917, without as much as an official “thank you” to the black population, the Danish official vessel simply set sail for the horizon, eventually disappearing from sight, and then was no more…

Denmark, knowing that Transfer was imminent, also could have granted the much-deserved citizenship to the islands’ black population, thereby imbuing them with the much-deserved option of setting sail for their adopted Danish homeland as full-fledged Danes, where they could have contributed to and enhanced all facets of Danish life. Instead, Denmark left its adopted children as nationless, international orphans. It was the Americans who, in less than a decade, would come to the diplomatic rescue of Virgin Islanders, giving them a nation to which to officially belong. On February 25, 1927, by an Act of Congress, US citizenship was bestowed upon the people of the US Virgin Islands, thereby making US Virgin Islanders, for the first time since being taken from the African homelands beginning in the late 1600s, official members of a nation:

• All former Danish citizens who on January 17, 1917, lived in the US Virgin Islands and were on February 25, 1927 residing in the islands, Puerto Rico, or in the United States proper and did not preserve their Danish citizenship or after taking the necessary steps to preserve their Danish citizenship subsequently renounced it before a court of record;

• All natives of the US Virgin Islands who on January 17, 1917, resided in the islands and were on January 25, 1927 residing in the islands, Puerto Rico, or the United States proper and are not a citizen or subject of any other country;

• All natives of the United States Virgin Islands who on January 17, 1917, resided in the United States proper and were on January 25, 1927, residing in the US Virgin Islands and are not citizens or subjects of any other country;

• Any person born in the United States Virgin Islands on or after January 17, 1917, and submits to the jurisdiction of the United States;

• Anyone not eligible for US citizenship pursuant to the above provisions could petition the District Court of the Virgin Islands for citizenship within a year of the effective date of the Act. [The right to vote was also conferred along with citizenship, but the voting rights were at the time linked to property ownership and income, thereby, in effect, excluding many black US Virgin Islanders from the right to vote.]

In effect, then, without having to file any documents, petition any entity, pass any examination, own any property, or pay any fees, or even pledge any allegiance, native US Virgin Islanders (and some Danish citizens) became United States citizens.

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The March 31, 1967, semi-centennial ceremony marking the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States of America in Christiansted, St Croix. Photo: Gustav A. Hagemann Collection

The Concept of Dual Citizenship

Different nations have different policies regarding dual citizenship: Some countries outright reject the concept, insisting that a person can only be loyal to one country; other countries allow their citizens to take a second citizenship, but only with certain countries; and some countries distinguish between “citizenship” and “nationality.”

The American Approach to Dual Citizenship

Before becoming a naturalized citizen, an immigrant must take a pledge that says, in part, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” While that language seems definitively to mean “one person, one country,” the oath is not US law, and US law neither mentions “dual nationality,” nor does it require a person to choose one nationality over another.

Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court, in a 1967 case, ruled that the State Department violated the US Constitution when it refused to issue a new passport to a US citizen who had voted in an election in Israel. (The decision overturned a law which stated that “a person who is a national of the United States, whether by birth or naturalization, shall lose his nationality by voting in a political election in a foreign state.”)

In the United States, it is permissible for a native-born American to claim citizenship in a second country, or for a naturalized US citizen to retain citizenship in another country. [There is no official or authoritative tally on how many Americans possess dual citizenship. But the conservative estimate is that it is well over one million]. And, of course, dual citizenship may be acquired automatically by operation of law, such as the case where a child is born in a foreign country to a US parent or parents. Likewise, a US national may acquire foreign nationality by marriage without relinquishing his US citizenship.

A person who is automatically granted another nationality does not risk losing his US citizenship. However, a person who voluntarily applies for another citizenship may lose his US citizenship if it is his intention to relinquish his US citizenship. (“Intent” may be demonstrated by words or conduct.)

The Danish Approach to Dual Citizenship

The concept of dual citizenship is not foreign to Danish law: Since September 1, 2015, Danish citizens are allowed to become citizens of another country without renouncing their Danish citizenship. But Denmark also has some of the world’s strictest citizenship requirements: nine years of legal residence in Denmark (If married to a Dane, a citizenship application may be made after six years); possibility of exclusion or, at best, penalty periods ranging from three to nineteen years for criminal offenses; receiving a passing grade on a test on Danish society, history, and culture; an application fee of 1,000 Danish Kroner; demonstration of the ability to self-support; proficiency in the Danish language; etc.

Unlike most other countries where citizenship is administered by a particular agency, in Denmark, persons applying for citizenship are formally included in a Bill that is voted on by the Danish Parliament. And those Bills are only voted on twice per year.

The “Virgin Islands Exception” for Danish Citizenship

Virgin Islanders who are residents of the islands and can trace their ancestry back to Danish era should be entitled, upon specific request, to automatic Danish citizenship for the following reasons:

• At the time of Transfer in 1917, Danish citizens in the islands who wished to become American citizens achieved their American citizenship automatically after one year – by operation of law – without having to pay fees, demonstrate proficiency in the English language, demonstrate self-sufficiency, take any oath of American allegiance, etc. Therefore, the same diplomatic courtesy should be extended to Virgin Islanders wishing to obtain Danish citizenship.

• If people from other nations, with no historical ties to Denmark, can qualify for Danish citizenship, then Virgin Islanders with verifiable personal and/or ancestral residence in the Danish West Indies – because of their centuries-long affiliation and commitment to the nation of Denmark – should be afforded the absolute highest citizenship preference/priority.

• Had Denmark bestowed Danish citizenship upon the black population in the islands during the Danish era, present-day US Virgin Islanders would have been entitled to Danish citizenship based upon their parental status as Danish citizens.

The Practical “Problems” of Dual Citizenships

Dual citizenship might, at first blush, seem like the best of both worlds, but it can prove problematic in certain circumstances:

• Dual citizenship may create competing interests for the two nations when attempting to assist nationals who encounter diplomatic or legal problems abroad.

• Dual citizens, because of their binary national loyalties, may be excluded from certain employment opportunities involving national security and classified information.

• Dual citizenship can create additional residency, military (sometimes conflicting), and tax obligations.

• Dual citizenships may erode national unity in times of peace and times of conflict.

Conclusion

For some US Virgin Islanders, Danish citizenship is their long-overdue birthright. For other US Virgin Islanders, the idea of voluntarily affiliating themselves with Denmark is regressive. For yet other US Virgin Islanders, dual citizenship with Denmark should be an individual option. Having the option deprives no US Virgin Islander of his position on the issue.
 
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