Citizens and Citizenship Rights

Introduction

Every country in the world has special privileges and rights that are reserved for its citizens. Therefore, in every country’s set of rules and regulations, there is always special reference to the issues of citizenship. Countries are formed and run by citizens who abide by the rules and responsibilities defined by their countries’ constitutions. In the United States, issues concerning citizens and citizenship are covered in the Fourteenth Amendment.

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The Fourteenth Amendment among other things states 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 States wherein they reside” (Nelson, 2004). This means that for individuals to become a citizen in the United States, they have to be born within the country or become naturalized.

Being a citizen of the United States is the gateway to other constitutional duties and responsibilities such as political-party membership. When the United States’ constitution was drafted back in 1787, it did not offer any expansive definitions of citizenship. However, the constitution mentioned ‘citizens of the United States’ at that time.

The Fourteenth Amendment later expounded on the rights and responsibilities of the ‘citizens of the United States’. This paper will explore the history of citizenship and citizens’ rights. The paper will focus on the history of the issue, the constitution, and the controversies arising from the issue.

The constitution

The section of the constitution that addresses citizenship and citizens’ rights is the Fourteenth Amendment. It was also the first expansive definition of citizenship in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment dates back to 1868 and its first section declares the rights and responsibilities of the country’s citizens. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment prioritizes national citizenship over state citizenship.

The rights and responsibilities of a citizen are also applicable to both the national and state jurisdictions. Initially, the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to accommodate African Americans who had been freed from slavery in 1865 (Rossiter & Kesler, 2009). The Fourteenth Amendment also incorporated the ‘place of birth rule’ that meant that all those people who were born within the United States’ territory automatically became citizens.

The birthplace requirement or the ‘jus soli’ concept was borrowed from the British Common Law. However, the Fourteenth Amendment does not bear the ‘jus sanguinis’ element that grants citizenship to people born in a foreign land. Citizenship matters usually coincide with the laws that are in effect at the place and time of birth.

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Additions to the components of the Fourteenth Amendment were not made until 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act was instituted.

The Act was later amended in 1965, 1976, and again in 1978. According to the Act, for any children born after 1952 to qualify as citizens “both parents must have been American citizens and one parent must have lived in the United States for ten years (and for at least five years after the age of 14) before the birth of the child” (Tilly, 2005).

Overview of Citizenship and Citizen’s Rights

Anybody who is born within the United States’ boundaries can become a citizen. This means that if a woman who is not a United States’ citizen is traveling to the United States and she has a baby while she is there, the baby can become a United States’ citizen but the mother cannot. In addition, “all children born to citizens abroad are also native-born citizens” (Tilly, 2005).

Individuals who are citizens of the United States by birth have an advantage over naturalized citizens because they can run for the presidency. Dual citizenship is permitted for the United States’ citizens. The two prerequisites for dual citizenship are if an individual has parents that live outside the US and if a child is born in the US to parents who are non-citizens.

The other means through which an individual can acquire United States’ citizenship is through naturalization. Naturalization is the only way through which a non-citizen can become a citizen.

Naturalization only grants persons who have attained eighteen years of age citizenship. In addition, applicants of citizenship must “be able to read, write, and speak English, and must have lived in the United States for five continuous years, or three years of he or she is married to a citizen” (Tilly, 2005). The process of applying for citizenship requires an individual to file a petition in which he/she requests for citizenship.

If the petition is accepted, the individual has to appear before the Immigration and Naturalization Committee where the individual answers questions about his character and background. A person’s knowledge of American history and government is also tested before he/she can be granted citizenship. Success in this level takes a person to the next level where the person offers an oath of allegiance to the constitution.

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Citizenship is not permanent and it can be lost for a number of reasons. The first reason why an individual can lose citizenship is when he/she gives up American citizenship in favour of another country’s citizenship. Conviction as a result of federal crimes such as treason can also lead to loss of citizenship. The other reason why citizenship can be revoked is if a person is involved in fraudulent activities during the naturalization process.

The United States has often been referred to as the ‘melting pot of cultures’ because ever since the country was formed troops of immigrants seeking a better life have settled in the United States. Recently, there have been concerns as to whether too many immigrants have been entering the United States. Opinions are still divided over immigration policies of the country.

Congress is the body with the authority to formulate immigration policies in the country. Initially, anybody could enter the United States freely until the late nineteenth century when the first immigration laws were instituted.

At some time, quotas were established to control the number of immigrants that could enter the country from individual countries. Currently, Congress has set a limit of 675,000 as of the number of immigrants that can enter the country yearly.

Before most people are naturalized as United States’ citizens, they first live in the country as ‘aliens’. Over the years, the Supreme Court has given aliens various rights. These rights include the right to own property, have businesses, and enroll in public schools. Also, aliens have the right to due process and they can benefit from the rights spelled out in the First Amendment. Nevertheless, rights are always accompanied by responsibilities.

For instance, aliens have to pay taxes. Unlike citizens, aliens cannot vote or seek elective positions. Aliens can also be deported for a number of reasons. In 1996, the Congress passed legislation that denied illegal immigrants the rights to government welfare except in the form of disaster relief or health emergencies.

This amendment was the subject of controversy because it seemed to undermine and compromise the wellbeing of persons living within the borders of the United States. Moreover, the Act was thought to target the minorities that make up most illegal immigrants.

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Rights, Benefits, and Responsibilities

Being a citizen of the United States accords an individual with several rights, benefits, and responsibilities. Citizens are required to carry out several duties as a form of service to their country.

The first duty imposed upon the citizens is jury duty. The other duty required from citizens is their participation in the military. Currently, military participation is voluntary but it has been mandatory for men at times, such as when the country is at war. The other duty that comes with citizenship is the payment of taxes.

The rights of the citizens of the United States are widely known. The first right is the right to live and work within the country’s borders. This right applies to both citizens and permanent residents although the latter can lose this right. Citizens also have the right to enter and leave the country as they wish. The constitution also gives citizens the right to vie for public office and vote.

There are benefits that come with being a citizen of the United States. Citizens of this country are provided with consular support whenever they are traveling abroad. Another benefit of being a citizen is that one can be able to sponsor relatives living in other countries if they are seeking to travel to the United States.

Citizens also benefit from tax exemptions that apply to non-residents. Once an individual is naturalized as a United States’ citizen, he/she cannot be subject to deportation.

History and Controversies Surrounding Citizenship and Citizens’ Rights

Citizenship in the United States dates back to colonial times when people used to come together to combat day-to-day problems. The main motivation behind citizenship in the early days was the need to formulate structures of democracy and solve municipal-related problems. One of the first regions to champion for citizenship needs was New England.

As time progressed, the emphasis on participation in local politics in relation to citizenship became less defined. Citizenship has since expanded to include other portions of the population and not just wealthy white men. The Naturalization Act of 1790 granted all white persons the citizenship rights, but the color requirement has never been explained.

In the consequent Militia Act of 1792, “white male citizens were described as vital to national defense, including the defense of white life and property against potential slave insurrection” (Rossiter & Kesler, 2009). The responsibilities that came with citizenship were however concentrated to property-owning white men.

This meant that only about twenty percent of the population participated in political processes while the rest of the population that included women, poor white men, slaves, colored people, and children was excluded.

Initially, immigrants had to live in the United States for at least one year before they could become citizens (Rossiter & Kesler, 2009). However, there were controversies concerning the immigrants’ participation in the political processes of the country. These controversies sometimes turned into strife as was the case was in Philadelphia where Irish immigrants revolted.

One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions concerning citizenship issues was made in 1857. In the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, it was ruled that “no African American, free or not free, had any rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit” (Schudson, 2008).

The relationship between race and citizenship only diffused after the civil war when the Fourteenth Amendment came into effect. Even after the Fourteenth Amendment was instituted, a group of people in the South tried to reinstitute the political domination of white property-owning citizens. This domination has been the subject of various political debates and decisions relating to racial issues.

Segregation trends in citizenship were upheld in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (Harlan, 1896). The same treatment that was accorded to African Americans in regards to citizenship was also extended to other minority groups such as the Jews.

There were other Supreme Court decisions that upheld the correlation between ‘whiteness’ and citizenship such as the U.S. v. Thind in 1923 and the U.S. v. Singh in 1917. Some of these decisions would appear ridiculous by today’s citizenship standards. For instance, in the United States v. Singh ruling the judge pointed out that “the race of people commonly known as Hindus was not white” (Tilly, 2005).

The modern citizenship began to take shape in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt was elected (Les Benedict, 2007). This was when citizenship became a social affair. After this period, citizens could demand democratic and political rights. However, the new welfare state still failed to accommodate the needs of women and minority races. World War II brought a strain on American citizens.

Tensions between citizens from ‘enemy’ countries also heightened culminating in the executive order to renounce the citizenship of all Americans of Japanese origin. The American government later apologized for making such a decision. In the post-war era, the citizenship requirements became more relaxed. In 1954, a Supreme Court decision overturned the earlier ruling that had been made in Plessy v. Ferguson (Harlan, 1896).

Assessment and Conclusion

Citizenship and citizen rights in the United States have evolved gradually. The citizenship policies have moved away from exclusion towards inclusion. The duties, responsibilities, and benefits of citizens have also changed considerably. The model United States’ citizen of today is both social and political. The progress that has been achieved in relation to citizenship and citizens’ rights has not been realized easily.

Several Supreme Court rulings concerning citizenship and citizens’ rights have been delivered since the 1800s. It is also important to note that the race issue in citizenship has been dominant for more than two centuries. The current state of citizenship and citizens’ rights in America is a result of successful social movements. The Civil Rights Movement and the women’s activism of the 1960s and 1970s contributed greatly to equal citizenship rights.

Soon after citizenship rights were acquired for everyone, the debate shifted to responsible citizenship. For instance, some people argued that social welfare was not necessary to a model United States’ citizen. Others felt that social welfare provided some citizens with a means to exploit their fellow citizens.

Uniformity in citizenship in accordance with race and economic class is yet to be fully achieved. However, great progress has been made when it comes to citizenship and citizens’ rights since colonial times.

References

Harlan, J. M. (1896). Plessy v. Ferguson. Olsen, Thin Disguise, 2(1), 113-121.

Les Benedict, M. (2007). The blessings of liberty: a concise history of the Constitution of the United States. New York, NY: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

Nelson, W. E. (2004). The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

Rossiter, C., & Kesler, C. R. (2009). The federalist papers. New York, NY: New American Library.

Schudson, M. (2008). The good citizen: A history of American civic life. New York, NY: Martin Kessler Books.

Tilly, C. (2005). Citizenship, Identity and Social History. International Review of Social History, 40(2), 1-18.

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