Even Royalty Aren't Safe from Citizenship Stripping | Opinion

In their recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were openly critical of the British royal family, the British press and the pervasive racism they faced while living in England.

Some in the British media responded with calls to strip the family of its British citizenship. Could that actually happen?

Legally, the answer is no. But as the British "shock jocks" and their American counterparts well know, the legal niceties are beside the point.

Meghan Markle is a U.S. citizen who never acquired British citizenship. She can't lose a status she never had (or, apparently, wants). Their son Archie inherited U.S. and British citizenship at birth from his parents and their unborn child will do the same. Prince Harry's sole citizenship is British.

The United Kingdom is one of a growing number of countries that permits its government to denationalize its citizens. The 2006 Immigration, Asylum, and Nationality Act grants the Home Secretary the power to revoke nationality when she thinks it "conducive to the public good." Since then, Britain has embraced citizenship stripping with gusto, revoking at least 120 people's citizenship since 2016.

The targets of denationalization are convicted criminals or connected to terrorism. The British law has never been used to strip citizenship based on criticism of crown or country alone. And in Harry's case, it would violate both British and international law to take away his only citizenship and leave him stateless.

Citizenship is about much more than legal status or a passport. It is a source of identity, legitimacy and belonging. Throughout history, revoking citizenship—or threatening to—has been used to silence and intimidate a government's critics, as well as to tell certain racial, religious and ethnic groups "you are not us." Calls to strip Prince Harry and his family of citizenship are being used to accomplish both goals.

The Greek city-states banished their political enemies, as did the United States during the "Red Scare" in the 1940s and 1950s. During the apartheid era, South Africa revoked the citizenship of its Black population. Nazi Germany and Vichy France both revoked citizenship from its Jews. The United States barred certain racial groups from naturalizing until 1952.

British royalty
Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex wave from the Ascot Landau Carriage during their carriage procession on the Long Walk as they head back toward Windsor Castle in Windsor, on May 19, 2018, after their wedding ceremony. AARON CHOWN/AFP via Getty Images

In the first few decades of the 20th century, Britain and the United States automatically revoked the citizenship of women, like Meghan Markle, who married foreign men—a xenophobic response intended to punish women for straying outside the fold. Britain's recent embrace of citizenship stripping is in line with this history—it has targeted mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants, the vast majority of whom are not white.

The consequences of citizenship stripping are serious. Losing citizenship has been described as a "civic death," depriving the target of the right to vote and hold elected office. Citizenship stripping can lead to deportation and permanent exile from home and community, resulting in a loss of "all that makes life worth living" in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even spurious denials of citizenship can be disturbingly effective, as proven by former President Donald Trump. The Trump administration launched a denaturalization campaign to investigate 700,000 naturalized citizens, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermining the status of 20 million naturalized Americans.

Throughout his presidency, Trump falsely claimed the power to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants at the stroke of a pen, despite the Constitution's guarantee of birthright citizenship for all born on U.S. soil. Trump rose to political power in part because he repeatedly questioned whether former President Barack Obama was a "natural born" citizen eligible to serve as president—a baseless claim that nonetheless convinced more than half the American electorate.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are wealthy, powerful and famous. But in many ways their situation mirrors that of the most vulnerable members of society targeted for citizenship stripping in the recent past.

Like those who came before them, their family's citizenship is being challenged because they spoke out against politically powerful individuals and institutions. And surely it is no coincidence that despite decades of bad behavior by various white members of the British royal family, it is this interracial couple who, alone, have been called undeserving of British citizenship.

For both the United Kingdom and the United States, this family's experience is a wake-up call. If their citizenship can be questioned, then no one's citizenship is safe.

Amanda Frost is a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches and writes about immigration and citizenship laws. She is also the author of the book You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.