Nativism, Naturalization, and Birthright

2010 August 13
by Ellen Noonan
Isaiah West Taber, "Chinese butcher and grocery shop, Chinatown, S.F.," c. 1905, black and white photograph; from The Bancroft Library at the University of California,

Isaiah West Taber, "Chinese butcher and grocery shop, Chinatown, S.F.," c. 1905, black and white photograph; from The Bancroft Library at the University of California,

The recent calls by right-wing politicians and media figures to repeal the 14th amendment to the constitution may appear to be so much political hyperventilating, a preposterous idea that will evaporate as quickly as it arrived in the headlines. But the nativist impulses behind such a proposal are strong, and as old as the amendment itself, which was born in an era that also saw the first serious debates about placing legal restrictions on immigration.

The very idea of “illegal” immigration came into being only when the federal government passed the Page Act in 1875, which denied entry to Chinese and Japanese prostitutes, felons, and contract laborers (also known as “coolies”). (Seven years later, Congress passed the more sweeping Chinese Exclusion Act.) Before that, Congress had been silent on the question of who could immigrate to the U.S. The question of who could become a naturalized citizen was first established in 1790, when the Naturalization Act provided that any “free white person” residing in the U.S. for two years was eligible for citizenship. For the next eighty years, Congress felt no need to pass any laws one way or the other about immigration or citizenship.

If much of today’s anti-immigrant ire is aimed at those arriving from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations to the South, during the nineteenth century immigrants from China were public enemy number one. In the 1860s, political pressure began mounting in California and other western states to deny civil rights to Chinese immigrants and even exclude them from the country entirely. In 1868, Congress passed the fourteenth amendment to the constitution, which ensured (among other things) “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.”

Given strong social sanctions against mixed-race marriages and the virtual absence of Chinese women in the U.S., there were precious few Chinese-American babies being born who would have benefitted from the 14th amendment’s “birthright” provision. Any possible path to citizenship for Chinese immigrants quickly disappeared, however, when Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1870. Attempts by Senators Senator Charles Sumner (the stalwart abolitionist and architect of Reconstruction) and Lyman Trumbull to have the law expand eligibility for naturalized citizenship to “all persons” were defeated, and the final law instead granted eligibility to “white persons and persons of African descent.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 reiterated and amplified this stance by explicitly denying any Chinese eligibility for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

In the wake of the Naturalization Act’s passage, Frederick Douglass praised Sumner for being “in the right place on the Chinese question. As usual you are in the van[guard]—the country in the rear.” How much in the rear Douglass could hardly have guessed. The legal barrier to Chinese citizenship stood until 1943, when wartime alliance with China helped to prompt a long overdue repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s provisions against citizenship for Chinese in the U.S.

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