Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

10d. Citizenship Rights

Immigration and Naturalization Service
The INS is charged with handling all immigration cases and issues within the United States, including the Border Patrol. It is a branch of the Department of Justice.

All countries have rules that determine who is a citizen, and what rights and responsibilities come with citizenship. In the United States, the 14th Amendment gives constitutional protection of the basic rights of citizenship: "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." So citizenship is conferred on the basis of place of birth and the process of naturalization.

Native-born Citizens

Any individual born within the boundaries of the United States or its territories is eligible for citizenship. If a foreign woman travels to the United States and gives birth to the child before leaving, the child is an American citizen, but the mother is not. Also, children born to American citizens abroad are also native-born citizens. The Constitution affords but one advantage to native-born citizens over those who are naturalized — the right to run for President of the United States. People may have dual citizenship — being citizens of two countries — if they are born to parents living outside the United States, or if they born in the United States to foreign citizens.

Citizenship by Naturalization

American Immigration Law Foundation logo
The American Immigration Law Foundation fights for immigrants' rights in the United States and advocates continued immigration as healthy for the society and economy.

Naturalization is the conferring of citizenship to an alien — a non-citizen living in the United States. An applicant for citizenship must be at least 18 years old, 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. An alien must file a petition requesting citizenship. The Immigration and Naturalization Service then holds a hearing in which the applicant is asked about his or her background and character. The applicant must also answer questions about American government and history. If the application is successful, the individual attends a final hearing to swear an oath of allegiance to the laws and Constitution of the United States.

Loss of Citizenship

Americans may lose their citizenship in three ways:

  • Expatriation, or giving up one's citizenship by leaving the United States to live in and becoming a citizen of another country

  • Punishment for a federal crime, such as treason

  • Fraud in the naturalization process

Admission to the United States

The United States has long been known as a haven for immigrants — a place people come to seek a better life. However, some Americans believed and still believe that too many people are crowding the United States and that immigrants will dilute American traditions and values. Throughout American history, debates have flared among those wishing to open the borders and those wishing to close them.

Melting Pot
The concept of the "Great American Melting Pot" is that the American people have been created from diverse groups of immigrants forming a culture with a unique character.

Congress has the power to regulate immigration by setting restrictions on who may be admitted to live in the United States. Until the late 19th century, no limitations were in place. The first immigration limitation acts were passed in the late 1800s, and eventually quotas — or limits — were placed on how many people could come from each country. During the 1960s quotas from individual countries were eliminated, but Congress does set a ceiling — 675,000 as of February 2021 — on the number of immigration visas granted each year.

The Rights of Aliens

The wording of the Constitution allows aliens to have many constitutional rights. The founders referred most often to "persons" rather than "citizens," and so the Supreme Court has allowed aliens the following rights:

  • Property ownership

  • Business ownership

  • Enrollment in public schools

  • First Amendment freedoms

  • Due process rights

Elian Gonzalez seized in Miami
The Elian Gonzalez case put illegal immigration into the United States in the spotlight. Of the millions who wish to enter the country, who should be allowed to stay?

With these rights come responsibilities, so aliens must pay taxes. They are not allowed to vote, they can not hold public office, and, unlike citizens, they may be deported from the United States. A very controversial provision of the 1996 Immigration Act denied and permitted states to deny most welfare benefits to illegal aliens, with the exceptions of emergency medical care, disaster relief, and some nutrition programs.

All United States citizens are protected by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, as well as by the state and national laws. Even though laws govern overall immigration and residents from other countries must go through the naturalization process in order to become citizens, many rights extend to aliens as well.

On the Web
American Immigration Law Foundation
The American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) was established in 1987 as an educational and service organization, and is primarily composed of immigration lawyers. These are the people immigrants turn to if facing deportation or having trouble with their legal status. AILF's mission is to promote public understanding of immigration law and policy.
Ellis Island Foundation
Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, the processing center for ships carrying immigrants from Europe to New York City. Today more than 40 %, over 100 million, of Americans can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
In 1988, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in a tiny storefront at 97 Orchard Street. This dilapidated tenement became the anchor of the Tenement Museum's groundbreaking efforts to preserve and interpret the history of the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side. It is the first museum in the United States to preserve a tenement and have it designated a National Historic Site. The museum provides history of urban, immigrant and working class people.
The Urban Log Cabin
Experience accurate recreations of what life was like for immigrants in the building in different years through slice-of-life dioramas.
United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees
What makes some people flee their homes and seek to emigrate? Many of the people who attempt to become U.S. citizens are refugees. The UNHCR is regarded as the world's leading authority on refugees and their rights. Check out their website for the latest refugee news around the world and a wealth of statistics.

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