The 8 Honorary Citizens of the United States
Let’s say you’re not a citizen of the United States, but you want to be. But not so much that you’d apply for naturalization, which involves interviews, tests, biometrics screening, and oaths. Let’s say you just want it, but again, not so much that you’d want to actually vote in the U.S., or apply for a passport. In such a situation, what you want is called “honorary citizenship of the United States.” You want the U.S. to claim you, kind of, but not so much that we have to do anything for you, nor do you do anything in exchange. As the U.S. State Department puts it:
Honorary citizenship does not carry with it the rights and privileges of ordinary citizenship, and such status does not confer any special entry, travel or immigration benefits upon the honoree or the honoree’s relatives and dependants [sic, really]. It also does not impose additional duties or responsibilities, in the United States or internationally, on the honoree.
Such citizenship is granted by Congress and the president, and the Senate website hosts a complete roster of those who have been so honored. Here are the eight honorary citizens of the United States.
1. Winston Churchill
You probably know Churchill as the wartime prime minister of the United Kingdom, which is likely the reason why the United States bestowed honorary citizenship upon him. You might not know that he was also recipient of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him (in the often unreliable eyes of the Nobel committee) alongside Yeats, Hemingway (who won it the following year), and Marquez.
2. Raoul Wallenberg
The horror that was the Holocaust defies human imagination (except for the many humans responsible for it). Though Hungary fought alongside Germany in World War II and passed anti-Semitic laws, Jews of Hungary were largely spared the Holocaust. Once Hungary wavered in the Axis cause, however, Hitler ordered the country occupied. Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported, and within one year, a half-million were murdered.
Raoul Wallenberg, a businessman, was sent to the Swedish Embassy in Hungary. His job was to issue 650 passports to Hungarian Jews with ties to Sweden, which would protect them from deportation. Upon arrival, Wallenberg took in the scope of the crisis and ramped up his operation. Through the creative issuance of diplomatic paperwork, he managed to protect thousands. When the fascists got wise to Wallenberg’s operation, they invalidated the paperwork, rounded up Jews, and forced them to walk to the Austrian border. Wallenberg, undeterred, followed behind in his car, and defying the guns pointed at him, provided food, water, and aid to those on the death march. He continued issuing his documents, finding some success. When the Soviets seized Budapest, Wallenberg was arrested as a spy. In 1981, there were reports that he was still alive in a Soviet prison, and so Congress passed a resolution making him an honorary American citizen to pressure the Soviets to reveal his whereabouts. As of today, it’s still unclear what happened to him, but according to the Soviets, he died in 1947.
3 and 4. William and Hannah Penn
In 1984—more than three centuries after he founded the Pennsylvania Colony—William Penn was named an honorary citizen of the United States. His colony was notable in that it wasn’t the hell that many Puritan colonies were at the time. It was also notable for having eventually been led by his wife, Hannah, who picked up William’s slack when his health declined toward the end of his life. After he died in 1718, she continued running the Pennsylvania Colony for another eight years.
5. Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa and Churchill are the only two people to have been named honorary citizens of the United States during their own lifetimes. The Catholic nun is known for her work with the poor in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and is presently on the fast track to being declared a saint by the Church. For what it’s worth, one step in the Vatican’s canonization process used to be a hearing with the so-called “devil’s advocate,” whose role was to argue against a candidate’s beatification and canonization. The position was abolished in the 1980s, but the Vatican still seeks out opposing views. During the Vatican’s investigation of Mother Teresa, Christopher Hitchens testified as her de facto devil’s advocate. A frequent critic of Mother Teresa, Hitchens later said of the hearing that he “represented the devil pro bono.”
6. Marquis de Lafayette
There is a strong argument to be made that the United States would not exist without Lafayette. He was the French general who led divisions of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and who, according to the 2002 Joint Resolution granting him American citizenship, “secured the help of France to aid the United States’ colonists against Great Britain.” Later, after returning to France, he introduced the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” before the National Constituent Assembly. (He coauthored the document, which played an important role in the French Revolution, with Thomas Jefferson.) So important was he to the cause of American independence that when he died, the U.S. House and Senate draped their chambers in black.
In 2016, Daveed Diggs (left) won a Tony for playing Lafayette (and Jefferson) in Hamilton.
7. Casimir Pulaski
Like Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski was drawn to the cause of American independence from Great Britain, and set sail for North America to help fight for the Continental cause. He didn’t waste any time once he got here. Among his accomplishments: During the Battle of Brandywine, he led a cavalry charge that saved George Washington’s life; he was promoted to general; he organized a legion of mounted soldiers; and, while he was at it, wrote the book on cavalry tactics. (Today he is considered one of the fathers of the American cavalry.) By order of Congress, for nearly a century now October 11 has been celebrated as Pulaski Day in the United States. He was made an honorary citizen in 2009.
8. Bernardo de Galvez
In 1777, Col. Bernardo of Galvez was made interim governor of Louisiana, which was then under Spanish control. An enemy of the British, Galvez helped smuggle supplies to the Continentals by way of New Orleans, a port city. As governor of Louisiana, he also orchestrated a campaign against the Red Coats, defeating them in the Battles of Fort Bute and Baton Rouge. After being appointed general, he also won the Battle of Fort Charlotte, taking Mobile from the British. George Washington considered Galvez to be “a deciding factor in the outcome of the Revolutionary War,” according to the 2014 resolution declaring Galvez to be an honorary American citizen. He’s also the most recent recipient of the honor, meaning the threshold is pretty high. It might be easier just to go through Immigration Services.