Naturalization Act of 1790

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The original United States Naturalization Law of March 26, 1790 (1 Stat. 103) provided the first rules to be followed by the United States in the granting of national citizenship. This law limited naturalization to immigrants who were free White persons of good character. It thus excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and later Asians, although free blacks were allowed citizenship at the state level in certain states. It also provided for citizenship for the children of U.S. citizens born abroad, stating that such children "shall be considered as natural born citizens," the only US statute ever to use the term. It specified that the right of citizenship did "not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States."[1][2][3]


In order to address one's good character, the law required two years of residence in the United States and one year in the state of residence, prior to applying for citizenship. When those requirements were met, an immigrant could file a Petition for Naturalization with "any common law court of record" having jurisdiction over his residence. Once convinced of the applicant's good moral character, the court would administer an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States. The clerk of the court was to make a record of these proceedings, and "thereupon such person shall be considered as a citizen of the United States."

The Act also establishes the United States citizenship of certain children of citizens, born abroad, without the need for naturalization: "the children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond Sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born Citizens: provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States"


The Act of 1790 was repealed by the Naturalization Act of 1795, which extended the residence requirement to five years, and by the Naturalization Act of 1798, which extended it to 14 years. The 1798 act was repealed by the Naturalization Law of 1802.

Nevertheless, as it was passed by the same Congress who enacted the Bill of Rights, including members who had participated in the Constitutional Convention, The Act of 1790 is thought to be an indicator of what the nation's Founders thought about the powers of the U.S. Government over immigration. Some, like noted activist, author and publisher B.L. Wilson[4] argue from The Act of 1790 that even today only White people and their progeny would be eligible to become U.S. citizens, a minority view rejected by other scholars in light of later legislation passed on immigration.

Major changes to the definition of citizenship were ratified in the nineteenth century following the American Civil War. The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 granted citizenship to people born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction; but it excluded untaxed “Indians” (Native Americans living on reservations). The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended "the naturalization laws" to "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent." In 1898 the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark granted citizenship to an American-born child of Chinese parents who had a permanent domicile and residence in the United States, and who were there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China.[5] All persons born in the United States since United States v. Wong Kim Ark have been granted citizenship although the Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled on the matter of children born to parents who are not legal residents of the United States.

All Native Americans were finally granted citizenship by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, whether or not they belonged to a federally recognized tribe; by that date two-thirds of Native Americans were already U.S. citizens. Further changes to racial eligibility for naturalized citizenship were ratified after 1940, when eligibility was also extended to "descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere," "Filipino persons or persons of Filipino descent," "Chinese persons or persons of Chinese descent," and "persons of races indigenous to India."[6] The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 prohibits racial and gender discrimination in naturalization.[7]


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  3. Bad news for Ted Cruz: his eligibility for president is going to court. Dara Lind and Jeff Stein. Vox Media. 18 February 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  5. United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).
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