US Citizenship and a History of Racial Discrimination

By | September 6, 2012

by Juan Bernal

In August 2012 just before the Republican Convention Mitt Romney, campaigning in his home state of Michigan, remarked on how proud he was to be a native son of that great state and then made the off-hand remark that “nobody had to ask about his birth certificate.”  Romney apparently thinks that he gets credit for being born in the USA (actually an accident of fate, as he could have been born elsewhere, e.g. Bangladesh) and was obviously flirting with those great Americans known as the “birthers,” those people of average(?) intellect who don’t think that President Barack Obama is a citizen of the USA.

Yes, Romney is willing to cater to those people who make the completely preposterous charge that President Obama is not an American and the comical claims that his birth certificate is fraudulent.  Supposedly these people — the “birthers” — are convinced that Obama was not born in the USA, but born outside in some other part of the world (Kenya?).  I’m not sure whether these people also deny that Obama’s mother was a citizen, but if they don’t, then all suspicions as to place of his birth are irrelevant, since any child born to a US citizen is automatically a citizen regardless of the place of birth.  Or maybe that they don’t realize that any person born in Hawaii after 1900 is automatically a citizen.

Who knows what the birthers think?  Do they think that Hawaii is not part of the US?  Do they think that if the father is a non-citizen, the child is a non-citizen also? (At one time this was actually true.) I’m not sure they know what they think.

At any rate, all this nonsense about Obama’s citizenship set me thinking other things about US citizenship, the different ways in which people come to be citizens of this great country, and other facts about our country’s handling of issues regarding citizenship and naturalization, and the extent to which  racial and ethnic discrimination has affected the process. .

Different Paths to Citizenship

Given that most citizens were born in this country and had parents who were citizens, some people might mistakenly think that being native or born to US parents are the only paths to US citizenship.  But there are many ways in which people can become citizens.  So I listed some of them and made a few comments about some of these categories.

(Comments are footnoted at end preceded by the pound sign ‘#’.)

First the ones with which most people are familiar. People gain citizenship by:

  • Birth in USA to parents who are citizens.
  • Birth in USA to at least one parent who is a citizen.
  • Birth in USA and parents are not citizens.
  • Born of at least one parent who is citizen, regardless of place of birth.
  • Immigration to the USA and Naturalization as citizen.

Next, ones which most people don’t know too well:

  1. Africans who were brought here as slaves and made citizens when freed           (See #1 below.)
  1. Native Americans who choose to live outside a reservation and become citizens.(See #2 below.)
  1. Valuable aliens (e.g., German scientists & engineers, runway models!) brought to our country and given a quick path to citizenship.
  2.  Non-citizen military veterans who were given fast track to naturalization.
  3.  War-brides Act of 1945 allowed alien wives brought home by veterans to be    naturalized and led to the practice of naturalization by marriage.
  4.  Residents of territory that were purchased or claimed by the United States.   (See #3 and #4 below)

(See the unjust case of the act which rescinded Filipino US citizenship. )

  1.  Residents of territory which became part of USA as a result of defeat in war.  (See #5 below)
  1. Residents of territory that entered the union in the 19th and 20th centuries States.     (See #6 below)

Racial and Ethnic Considerations 

Although the USA has given entry to millions of immigrants and opened the doors to eventual naturalization, showing that US citizenship is a prize that many people rightly desire and value, some historical facts about conditions for US citizenship, Acts of Congress on citizenship, and quotas on immigration reflect the racism and ethnocentrism of the past.

Consider some of these:

The Constitution does not mandate race-neutral naturalization.

The Naturalization Act of 1795  set the initial parameters on naturalization: “free, White persons” who had been resident for five years or more.  (In effect, this barred the door to citizenship for the Native Americans who had been ‘residents’ for centuries.)

Until 1952, the Naturalization Acts written by Congress still allowed only white persons to become naturalized as citizens (except for two years in the 1870s which the Supreme Court declared to be a mistake).

The Naturalization Act of 1798, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts, was passed by the Federalists and extended the residency requirement from five to fourteen years. It specifically targeted Irish and French immigrants who were involved in Democratic-Republican Party politics. It was repealed in 1802.

A special Amendment to the Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), was needed to grant citizenship to newly freed black people, all of whom had resided in the USA for many years.

The enabling legislation for the naturalization aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment was the Naturalization Act of 1870 , which allowed naturalization of “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent”, but is silent about other races.

Even after this event, many decades passed while the rights and privileges of citizenship were denied to blacks in most southern states, and even in some northern states.

Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment meant that, in theory, all persons born in the U.S., and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens regardless of race.

Citizenship by birth in the United States, however, was not initially granted to Asians until 1898, when the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment did apply to Asians born in the United States in United States v. Wong Kim Ark.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act  banned Chinese workers and specifically barred them from naturalization. The Immigration Act of 1917, (Barred Zone Act) extended those restrictions to almost all Asians.

The 1922 Cable Act  specified that women marrying aliens ineligible for naturalization lose their US citizenship. At the time, all Asians were ineligible for naturalization.

The Immigration Act of 1924  barred entry of all those ineligible for naturalization, which again meant non-Filipino Asians.

It took until 1924 for Congress to get around to passing the Indian Citizenship Act, which made citizens of all Native Americans, who were not already citizens, born in the United States.

Following the Spanish American War in 1898, Philippine  residents were classified as US nationals. But the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, or Philippine Independence Act, reclassified Filipinos as aliens, and set a quota of 50 immigrants per year, and otherwise applying the Immigration Act of 1924 to them.

Asians were first permitted naturalization by the 1943 Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. India  and the Philippines were allowed 100 annual immigrants under the 1946 Filipino Naturalization Act.

The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (better known as the McCarran-Walter Act) lifted racial restrictions, but kept the quotas in place.

The Immigration Act of 1965 finally allowed Asians and all persons from all nations be given equal access to immigration and naturalization.  (It was about time that this happen!)

Closing Thoughts

Our government has unquestionably discriminated against people of color (Blacks, Latinos), Native Americans, and Asians with respect to immigration and qualification for naturalization.  These people have been denied entry altogether or forced to wait for decades to enjoy the same privileges that members of other more-desirable groups enjoy.  To give a stark contrast, while blacks were denied the full rights of citizenship for many decades, Native Americans ignored,  and Asian people simply blocked from entry,  the white southerners who betrayed the US and actively fought a war against the USA as soldiers of an alien state (the Confederate States) were immediately re-instated as full-fledged citizens of the USA following the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Talk about a stark, unjustifiable difference in the treatment of people!


#1, African people forcibly brought to our great land to serve as slaves for those who could afford to buy slaves.  There wasn’t any question as to their status prior to the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln in the 1860s: they were property, not persons with right  to citizenship.  The Proclamation freed them from slavery, but the 14th Amendment was needed to give them status as citizens.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted July 9, 1868, as one of the Rconstruction Amendments.  Its Citizenship clause gives a broad definition of citizenship that overruled Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) that had held that black people could not be citizens of the United States.

Section 1 reads: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

#2: Native Americans or members of the many native, ‘indian’cultures that had a long history in north America prior to the Europeans.  Would they be allowed entry into citizenship or not?  Prior to 1924 there were acts of Congress granting citizenship to specific groups (e.g. Cherokee, Choctaw); and later individual Native Americans could become naturalized, as if they were from a foreign country.

On June 2, 1924  President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act,  which made citizens of all Native Americans, who were not already citizens, born in the United States and its territories. Prior to passage of the act, nearly two-thirds of Native Americans were already U.S. citizens.

American Indians today in the U.S. have all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, can vote in elections, and run for political office.

 #3 Citizens of a country that is appropriated as US territory.  Start with the Philippines:

Following the Spanish American War in 1898, Philippine residents were classified as US nationals. But

the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, or Philippine Independence Act, reclassified Filipinos as aliens, and set a quota of 50 immigrants per year, otherwise applying the Immigation Act of 1924 to them. The quotas did not apply to Filipinos who served in the US Navy.

#4 Other examples of US Congress manipulation of citizenship conditions:

All persons born in Puerto Rico between April 11, 1899, and January 12, 1941, are automatically conferred citizenship as of the date the law was signed by the President Truman on June 27, 1952. Additionally, all persons born in Puerto Rico on or after January 13, 1941, ar native-born citizens of the United States. Note that because of when the law was passed, for some, the native-born status was retroactive.

All persons born in the U.S. Virgin Islands on or after February 25, 1927, are native-born citizens of the United States.  All the persons and their children born in the U.S. Virgin Islands subsequent to January 17, 1917, and prior to February 25, 1927, are declared to be citizens of the United States as of February 25, 1927 if complied with the U.S. law dispositions.

All persons born in Alaska on or after June 2, 1924, are native-born citizens of the United States. Alaska was declared a US State  on January 3, 1959.

All persons born in Hawaii on or after April 30, 1900, are native-born citizens of the United States. Hawaii was declared a U.S. State on August 21, 1959.

All persons born in the island of Guam on or after April 11, 1899 (whether before or after August 1, 1950) subject to the jurisdiction of the US, are declared citizens of the United States.

#5  Residents of territory which became part of USA as a result of defeat in war.  In the Mexican-American war of 1846, two examples would be residents of territories that later became California and New Mexico.  These former Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the conquered territory automatically became US residents and later, when the territory was admitted to the union, they automatically became US citizens.

#6  Residents of territory that entered the union in the 19th and 20th centuries.  One such example is New Mexico, which became a US territory when Mexico was defeated in the Mexican-American War of 1846.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848,  included Article VIII which guaranteed that Mexicans who remained more than one year in the ceded lands would automatically become full-fledged United States citizens (or they could declare their intention of remaining Mexican citizens); however, the Senate modified Article IX, changing the first paragraph and excluding the last two. Among the changes was that Mexican citizens would “be admitted at the proper time (to be judged of by the Congress of the United States).  The “proper time” was delayed until 1912 when New Mexico was finally admitted to the union.

[ My paternal grandparents, who were New Mexican residents in 1912, became citizens of the US as a result of New Mexico’s entry into the union. ]


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