Who is a Citizen?

The owner of this Oakland, CA, grocery store declared his allegiance to America, the day after Pearl Harbor, 1941.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
CUNY School of Law Professor Janet Calvo is a specialist in immigration law and the rights of undocumented persons.
The owner of this Oakland, CA, grocery store declared his allegiance to America, the day after Pearl Harbor, 1941.

In the United States, citizenship entails privileges and responsibilities, primarily the right to vote, the ability to live and prosper without fear of deportation, and the duty to pay taxes and serve on juries. Citizenship also provides a sense of belonging to a society and a chance to be seen as equal.

Prior to the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the Constitution left the definition of “citizenship” to the states, which often excluded African-Americans from the benefits of citizenship. The Supreme Court itself defined citizenship in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), ruling that persons of African descent, whether free or enslaved, could not be citizens of the United States. In denying the legality of black citizenship, the Court hastened the nation’s march toward the Civil War.

The Civil War’s conclusion prompted Congress to pass three constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, redefined citizenship by creating a national citizenship that would trump state citizenship, and protected the right to vote for African-Americans. In stating that, “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,” the 14th Amendment overturned the Court’s Dred Scott decision.

After Dred Scott, the Supreme Court’s most disturbing decision regarding the parameters of citizenship was Korematsu v. United States (1944), which upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Executive Order 9066 (1942) issued during World War II. This order forced the relocation of persons of Japanese descent, whether citizen or resident alien, from the West Coast to relocation camps. Not until 1988 would Congress pass legislation that apologized for the internment and provided limited reparations.

Not until passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 did the U.S. grant citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. Even then, some Native Americans could not vote because this right fell to individual states. New Mexico was the last state to enfranchise Native Americans in 1962.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 radically changed the immigration policy of the nation by welcoming people from Asia and South America. Today, some argue there is an economic and moral benefit in extending citizenship to the estimated 11 million undocumented persons living in the U.S., while those opposed argue it would be unfair to grant citizenship to those who entered the country illegally.

Back to Top