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Open Access Publications from the University of California

‘Neither citizen nor alien’: Migration, Territoriality, and Malfunctioning Empire in the US Virgin Islands


In 1924, Leander Holder, an Afro-Danish housewife living in New York City, attempted to buy a steamship ticket home after a visit to the US Virgin Islands. The steamship company refused to sell her passage, arguing that she lacked the needed documents to prove her American citizenship. The snafu sent a flurry of letters, cables, and memos circulating through the islands–mainland circuit. As Virgin Islands activists, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), federal officials, and Holder’s family became embroiled in a debate over how she might return to the mainland, their conundrum became indicative of how migrating imperial subjects revealed the reach and limits of American power. This article considers Holder’s predicament through the lens of territoriality and migration to reveal the deficiencies of not only America’s territorial regime but also how the movements of ordinary women and men across, to, and from imperial spaces lay bare the way empire exerts power through incoherence. Opening with the facts of the case, the article then explores how rapid changes in conceptions of territoriality and citizenship influenced its events. It then considers migration as the key malfunction point in the increasingly racialized context of American empire in the early twentieth century. The article ends by examining the ways that Holder’s story speaks to the function of dysfunction in the history of American empire, a migrant’s ability to disrupt empire’s assumed efficiency, and the ways empire wields power even as its judicial congruency fails, its bureaucracies bicker, and its processes malfunction.

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