The first statute in the United States to codify naturalization law.
Alternately known as the Nationality Act, the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. This implied that black and, later, Asian immigrants were not eligible to be naturalized, but it said nothing about the citizenship status of non-white persons born on American soil. Subsequent nineteenth-century legislation included a racial requirement for citizenship. It was one of several early immigration laws that shaped the framework and outcome of the Ozawa v. United States case in 1922.
Upon declaring independence from Great Britain, the leaders of the new republic aspired to create a distinct American nationality and minimize the risk of another monarchy. When they drafted the 1787 Constitution, they did not define what they meant by “natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States” and said very little about immigration. As historian Rudolph Vecoli notes, “one became an American by choice, not by descent,” through a common commitment to the doctrine of natural rights. Consequently, the only distinction between “natural born” and naturalized citizens it made was that the latter were to be ineligible for the presidency. It did authorize Congress to “establish a uniform Rule of naturalization” and allowed for the “migration or importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” resulting in a steady flow of slaves until 1808.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 set the criteria for naturalization to two years of residency, proof of good moral character, and an oath to support the Constitution. It also mandated that one must “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty.” Despite its generous terms extending citizenship to all children of citizens, it denied the right to naturalize to “persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.” The law’s use of the phrase, “free white person,” also excluded blacks and immigrants of other races from being eligible for citizenship. In 1795, as anti-immigrant feeling began to grow, the necessary period of residence was increased to five years. Without the right to naturalize, immigrants would not be able to vote and would have no political voice or power.
In 1870, Congress created a second racial category. In keeping with the reforms of the Reconstruction era, the new legislation gave “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” access to citizenship. Racial barriers to naturalization remained for Asians, but loopholes in citizenship rules and procedures allowed for successful petitions for naturalization through local courts. The Naturalization Act of 1906 standardized the application process with direct bearing on the Ozawa case. This legislation now regulated nonracial requirements such as filing a declaration of intention and appearing before a judge, but the preceding racial limitations were left intact.
- Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 113-114.
- Rudolph J. Vecoli, “The Significance of Immigration in the Formation of an American Identity,” The History Teacher 30:1 (November 1996): 10.
- Vecoli, “The Significance of Immigration,” 10; Linda K. Kerber, “The Meanings of Citizenship,” The Journal of American History 84:3 (December 1997): 838-843.
- Yuji Ichioka, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924 (New York: Free Press, 1988), 211; Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 47.
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