Citizenship Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Legal membership in a country, attained at birth or through naturalization, that conveys certain rights and requires certain responsibilities.

Article I, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to make laws outlining who is eligible to become a naturalized citizen of the United States and detailing how that eligibility can be established. In January, 1790, President George Washington, in his annual message, expressed his concern over citizenship and naturalization issues, urging Congress to develop naturalization laws. In response to Washington’s concerns, Congress passed a law later that year providing for naturalization of free white aliens who had resided in the United States for at least two years and who made application for citizenship. Over the years, Congress adjusted the residency requirement several times, but it was not until 1866, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, that people of color were accepted as citizens of the United States.

Congress’s Right to Define Citizenship

In various decisions, the Supreme Court supported the right of Congress to define citizenship and to control immigration and naturalization. In Chy Lung v. Freeman[case]Chy Lung v. Freeman[Chy Lung v. Freeman] (1875), the Court held that legislation passed by states to control immigration was illegal, stating that only Congress had the right to pass laws concerning the admission and entry into the United States of foreign nationals.

In 1885 in the Head Money Cases[case]Head Money Cases[Head Money Cases], the Court placed Congress’s right to control immigration within the commerce clause of the Constitution. Although this right was challenged many times in subsequent years in cases involving the Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882-1902), the Court continued to uphold congressional responsibility for control of issues relating to immigration and naturalization. However, in deciding these cases, the Court did not always base its decisions on the commerce clause.

In the Chinese Exclusion Cases[case]Chinese Exclusion Cases[Chinese Exclusion Cases] (1884-1893), the Court stated that Congress might exclude aliens even if they came from a country at peace with the United States. It said Congress was free to exclude any group that it believed could not assimilate into American culture and, therefore, might affect American peace and security.

In United States v. Ju Toy[case]Ju Toy, United States v.[Ju Toy, United States v.] (1904), the Court indicated that Congress had the right to exclude anyone from the United States, even citizens. Ju Toy, returning to the United States from China, claimed that he was a naturalized citizen. However, the secretary of labor and commerce agreed with a lower court that Toy was not eligible for entry to the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Court decision supported the secretary’s actions. However, naturalized citizens’ rights were somewhat protected in Quon Quon Poy v. Johnson[case]Quon Quon Poy v. Johnson[Quon Quon Poy v. Johnson] (1926), in which the Court stated that, when citizenship was challenged, the person claiming citizenship had the right to a fair and thorough administrative hearing. The 1933 decision in Volpe v. Smith[case]Volpe v. Smith[Volpe v. Smith] confirmed Congress’s right to control immigration and naturalization, stating that its right to determine who could enter the United States was “no longer open to question.”

In Trop v. Dulles[case]Trop v. Dulles[Trop v. Dulles] (1958), the Court affirmed that only Congress had the authority to decide citizenship matters. Trop, who had been stripped of his citizenship rights by a military court, sued to regain those rights. The Court ruled that only Congress, and not the military courts, could deprive citizens of their citizenship rights. However, in 1967, in Afroyim v. Rusk[case]Afroyim v. Rusk[Afroyim v. Rusk], it was held that not even Congress could strip a citizen of the right to citizenship. Citizenship was held to be a constitutionally protected right that could not be taken away without the assent of the citizen.

Eligibility for Citizenship

In answering the question of who is eligible for citizenship, the Court made interpretations based on the 1790 law. One of the Court’s most famous statements on eligibility for citizenship was made in Scott v. Sandford[case]Scott v. Sandford[Scott v. Sandford] (1857), also known as the Dred Scott Case. Dred Scott, a slave who had been taken into the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin, sued for his freedom. Justice Roger Brooke Taney, speaking for the court majority, said that the suit would have to be dismissed because no black person, free or slave, could ever be a citizen and, therefore, was not eligible to bring suit in court. The decision was based on the 1790 act in which Congress gave the right to naturalization to free, white aliens.

The Dred Scott decision was the not the only one in which race or color was held as an appropriate test for citizenship. In Elk v. Wilkins[case]Elk v. Wilkins[Elk v. Wilkins] (1884), the Court ruled that Elk, who had left his Native American tribe to live among white people in Omaha, Nebraska, could not be considered a citizen because Native Americans were dependents of the state, in a ward-guardian relationship with the federal government. Native Americans were granted citizenship by Congress in 1924. This right to citizenship was affirmed by the Nationality Code of 1940.

The case of Toyota v. the United States[case]Toyota v. the United States[Toyota v. the United States] (1924) also illustrated the Court’s adherence to the principles of the 1790 law. Toyota had served in the U.S. Coast Guard and had even fought for the United States during World War I. When a 1918 act of Congress gave alien veterans permission to apply for citizenship, Toyota took advantage of the law and applied for and received a certificate of naturalization. However, the Court revoked his certificate, indicating that the 1918 law did not eliminate the 1790 requirement that naturalized citizens be free whites.

In the 1922 Ozawa v. United States[case]Ozawa v. United States[Ozawa v. United States], the Court ruled that people who were born in Japan could never become citizens of the United States because they were not free, white aliens. In this case the Court defined white as “Caucasian.” In Morrison v. California[case]Morrison v. California[Morrison v. California] (1934), the Court again ruled that a person born in Japan could not become a U.S. citizen. Before the Ozawa case, a number of ChineseChinese;U.S. citizenship and JapaneseJapanese;U.S. citizenship people had become naturalized U.S. citizens. In the United States v. Thind[case]Thind, United States v.[Thind, United States v.] (1922), a native of India who had been granted citizenship by an Oregon court was deemed ineligible for citizenship because he did not meet the definition of white. In this case white was defined not as “Caucasian” but as being of European stock.

In 1943 an act of Congress expressly granted Chinese the right to naturalization. In 1945 people from India and the Philippines became eligible for U.S. citizenship. In 1952 the Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted all racial bars to naturalization.

Although in the 1800’s and early 1900’s the Court often ruled that foreign nationals of color could not become naturalized citizens, it was willing to accept the citizenship of people of AfricanAfrican Americans;citizenship[citizenship] or AsianAsian Americans;citizenship[citizenship] heritage who were born in the United States. The 1898 decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark[case]Wong Kim Ark, United States v.[Wong Kim Ark, United States v.] established the citizenship of a child born in the United States of Chinese parents. The Court held that this child’s citizenship was guaranteed under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.

However, in 1998, when a petitioner attempted to use Wong Kim Ark to establish her citizenship in Miller v. Albright[case]Miller v. Albright[Miller v. Albright], the petitioner’s right to citizenship was denied. The petitioner was born in the Philippines to an American father and a Filipino mother. Although the father acknowledged paternity, he did not know of his daughter’s existence until she was twenty-one years old. The Court ruled that if a child wishes to claim U.S. citizenship, paternity must be established or acknowledged by the time the child is eighteen years old.

Citizenship Rights

The Court ruled on the nature of citizens’ rights and responsibilities as well as on the nature of citizenship itself. In ruling on cases involving who can be naturalized, the Court often helped all citizens understand what it means to be a U.S. citizen.

In the Slaughterhouse Cases[case]Slaughterhouse Cases[Slaughterhouse Cases] (1873), the Court ruled that all citizens have both national citizenship and state citizenship. The bulk of citizens’ rights are regulated by the states; national citizenship rights are outlined by the Constitution. For example, in Edwards v. California[case]Edwards v. California[Edwards v. California] (1941), the Court ruled that a citizen’s right to move from state to state is a national right that is protected by the Constitution.

The Court examined various requirements of U.S. citizenship in cases involving naturalized citizens. In Girouard v. United States[case]Girouard v. United States[Girouard v. United States] (1946), the Court ruled that Girouard, who had refused to swear to defend the country, could become a naturalized citizen. In the opinion, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that taking up arms to defend the country is not a specific requirement of U.S. citizenship. In Schneiderman v. United States[case]Schneiderman v. United States[Schneiderman v. United States] (1939), the Court refused to revoke Schneiderman’s certificate of naturalization because he was a member of the CommunistCommunism Party when he took the oath of citizenship. The Court said citizens should not be subjected to the idea of guilt by association. The Court also refused to revoke the citizenship of pro-Nazi Baumgartner in Baumgartner v. United States[case]Baumgartner v. United States[Baumgartner v. United States] (1944), ruling that naturalized citizens had as much right to association as citizens born in the United States. This was a very important statement for the rights of naturalized citizens.

In Mandoli v. Acheson[case]Mandoli v. Acheson[Mandoli v. Acheson] (1952), the Court ruled that a native-born citizen cannot lose citizenship for not returning to the United States during adulthood. Similarly, in Schneider v. Rusk[case]Schneider v. Rusk[Schneider v. Rusk] (1964), the Court ruled that a naturalized citizen can retain U.S. citizenship even if that citizen is out of the country for a long time. A native-born citizen would not lose citizenship for an extended stay outside the country, and a naturalized citizen has the same rights as a citizen born in the United States. Also, in Perkins v. Elg[case]Perkins v. Elg[Perkins v. Elg] (1939), the Court ruled that a child who acquires U.S. citizenship at birth does not automatically lose that citizenship if her parents take her abroad to live in another country.

Japanese Americans and World War II

DuringWorld War II;Japanese American relocation the administration of President George Bush, the U.S. government apologized to Japanese AmericansJapanese American relocation for its treatment of them during World War II. Part of this treatment consisted of rulings made by the Court. In Hirabayashi v. United States[case]Hirabayashi v. United States[Hirabayashi v. United States] (1943), the Court declared that the March 21, 1942, act of Congress placing a curfew on people of Japanese ancestry was legal even though many of the people who were subjected to the curfew were U.S. citizens. In Korematsu v. United States[case]Korematsu v. United States[Korematsu v. United States] (1944), the Court held that the internment of Japanese Americans was legal and necessary for national security. This decision was reached in spite of the fact that many of those interred were native-born citizens.Japanese American relocation

Further Reading
  • Good starting points for studying this subject are Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff’s. Semblances of Sovereignty: The Constitution, the State, and American Citizenship (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Ronald B. Flowers’s To Defend the Constitution: Religion, Conscientious Objection, Naturalization, and the Supreme Court (Landham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002), both ofwhich examine the role of the Supreme Court in the definition and application of American citizenship. D. J. Herda thoroughly examines Scott v. Sandford in The Dred Scott Case: Slavery and Citizenship (Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1994). Thomas Janoski’s Citizenship and Society: A Framework of Rights and Obligations in Liberal, Traditional, and Social Democratic Regimes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998) introduces and explains the concept of citizenship, discusses the balance between citizenship rights and obligations, and traces changes in citizenship rights over several centuries. Early historical developments related to U.S. citizenship are examined by J. H. Kettner in The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978). Issues that historically affected the Asian immigrant’s ability to become naturalized were explored by M. R. Konvitz in The Alien and the Asiatic in American Law (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1946). Richard Sinopoli discusses the values associated with U.S. citizenship in The Foundations of American Citizenship: Liberalism, the Constitution, and Civic Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Eve P. Steinberg’s How to Become a U.S. Citizen (New York: Macmillan General References, 1998) explains what steps an immigrant must take to become a naturalized citizen. Aliza Becker, Laurie Edwards, and the Travelers and Immigrants Aid of Chicago also describe the steps in the naturalization process in Citizenship Now: A Guide for Naturalization (Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC, 1990).

Alien rights and naturalization

Chinese Exclusion Cases

Edwards v. California

Fourteenth Amendment

Head Money Cases

Hirabayashi v. United States

Immigration law

Korematsu v. United States

Scott v. Sandford

Trop v. Dulles

Wong Kim Ark, United States v.

Categories: History