Tue, Nov

Who Gets to Be an American? On the Evolution of US Citizenship


CITIZENSHIP - This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Bhagat Singh Thind was ineligible for citizenship. Although he would have been considered “Aryan” or “Caucasian” as an Indian national at the time, the Court did not consider him “white,” and the prevailing law limited citizenship to “free white persons.” Among other things, U.S. citizenship gives people the ability to vote and participate in our democracy. As we approach Election Day on November 7th just days before another potential government shutdown, we must reflect on how white supremacy has historically limited U.S. citizenship and threatened participation in our democracy.

The people indigenous to the United States did not qualify as “free white persons” and did not receive citizenship until 1924. While some Indigenous Americans had long advocated for Indigenous rights, including citizenship, there were others who rejected U.S. citizenship as a violation of previously agreed-upon treaties with the United States. When the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1868, it was limited to individuals “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” which excluded citizenship from Indigenous Americans.

Meanwhile, Black people in the United States, whether enslaved or free, obtained birthright citizenship through the 14th Amendment. This amendment – following decades of organizing, advocacy, and a civil war – was due in part to free African Americans assembling in state and national conventions starting in the 1830s. During the 1831 convention, the delegates surmised that if the federal government could relocate tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory under the Indian Removal Act in 1830 resulting in the Trail of Tears, Black Americans faced a similar threat of removal. The delegates consequently advocated to have the rights and privileges of American citizens. In 1870, a couple years after the passage of the 14th Amendment, Congress extended eligibility for citizenship to include both white people and “persons of African descent.”

The concept of whiteness was (and continues to be) malleable, especially with respect to eligibility for U.S. citizenship. In 1848, the United States claimed hundreds of thousands of square miles of ceded territory following the Mexican-American War, fulfilling the dreams of expansionist-oriented Americans who believed in “Manifest Destiny.” The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised citizenship to 75,000 to 100,000 Mexicans who lived in the new West and Southwest United States. Nearly 50 years later, a federal court in Texas ruled that a man of Mexican descent was eligible for citizenship due to this treaty.While the federal government conferred immediate U.S. citizenship to Mexicans, it was not willing to do so for Puerto Ricans and the residents of other newly acquired territories.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War ended with the United States assuming control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The Treaty of Paris stripped the residents of the ceded territories of Spanish citizenship, but the federal government, for the first time in U.S. history, did not promise citizenship or eventual statehood to the three territories. Instead, Congress eventually designated them as “unincorporated territories” where the inhabitants had “nationality” status rather than U.S. citizenship. As non-citizen nationals, they had fewer rights and protections than that of U.S. citizens. A series of Supreme Court cases characterized the territories as “inhabited by alien races” and the residents as “foreign in a domestic sense.” The U.S. government went on to assume control of Eastern Samoa (now American Samoa), the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), and the Northern Mariana Islands over the next 50 years. Congress ultimately conferred citizenship on territorial residents between 1917 and 1986 except for American Samoans, but they continue to have fewer rights and protections than citizens of the Union.

As the United States rationalized the limitations of citizenship for territorial residents, it found ways to create pathways to citizenship for immigrants primarily from Europe. In 1929, the federal government permitted immigrants who were overwhelmingly from Europe and arrived without admission recordsbetween June 1906 and July 1921 to have an after-the-fact arrival record, which enabled them to apply to become naturalized citizens. While Congress finally eliminated laws that prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens in 1952 – 162 years after explicitly limiting citizenship to “free white persons” – distinctions on access to citizenship remain. Congress updated that registry program four more times, most recently in 1986 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, but it has not advanced the registry date in nearly 40 years. More than two-thirds of U.S. residents who lack a pathway to citizenship have lived in the United States for more than 10 years. Advocates today have been seeking the registry program to be updated once more for immigrants who arrived without admission records before 2015. Advancing the registry date provides a pathway to citizenship and protects people who have lived in the United States for years.

Citizenship, the question of American identity, and how it has been defined has evolved from who can be excluded to removing many of those restrictions. However, there continue to be distinctions between nationals and U.S. citizens residing in “unincorporated territories” from U.S. citizens living in the Union, and there continue to be U.S. residents who lack a pathway to citizenship. Policies and practices rooted in race-based thinking need to be changed to help us fulfill the promise of our American democracy.

(Ivy O. Suriyopas is the Vice President of Programs at Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees. This article was first published in CommonDreams.org.)