The Naturalization Act of 1790

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

by Daniel Nardini

In 1790, the U.S. Congress and U.S. President George Washington signed into law the Naturalization Act. Under this act, only the U.S. government could grant U.S. citizenship to those who came to live in the United States for about five years. However, U.S. citizenship could only be granted to white Europeans who came to live in the United States or married an American. In other words, anyone from Africa and Asia could not become U.S. citizens (African slaves were not counted as human beings at that point. Freed Blacks were not given U.S. citizenship either). The Naturalization Act was upheld in the administrations of second U.S. President John Adams and that of the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed whereby freed Black slaves and those born and raised in the United States could become U.S. citizens regardless of race. U.S. citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917, and to Native Americans in 1920. However, the Naturalization Act of 1790, which decreed that only white Europeans who came to live in the United States could become U.S. citizens, remained in place. In the case of Mexicans and people from Latin America, it was possible for them to become U.S. citizens, but only if they could prove to be of “white” ancestry. In 1952, the U.S. Congress the Immigration and Nationality Act which finally allowed Asians who immigrated to the United States to become U.S. citizens. this included all people from Latin America regardless of race.

I bring this up because until fairly recently in our history, only whites could become U.S. citizens. Less than 50 years ago the U.S. southeast states had the Jim Crow laws that barred African Americans from being full-fledged Americans, and the barrio laws in the U.S. southwest that prohibited Mexican Americans their basic rights were only recently struck down. Many of us Americans can remember this within our lifetimes. It is therefore not impossible that some would-be politician, or a president, could make into a law that states only children of “legal resident” parents can become U.S. citizens. It is in my view doubtful that some would-be Republican presidential candidates can ever change the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the 14th Amendment is constitutional and that this cannot be changed. But, it is possible that a new naturalization act could be passed and that it could remain on the books for decades or even a century. Look at how long the Naturalization Act of 1790 remained on the books, so this is possible. The danger I warn here is of history repeating itself.

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