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The first naturalization law passed in the United States was the Naturalization Act of 1790. This law granted citizenship to all “free white persons” who had resided in the United States for at least two years. This law was the first of its kind and established the basic framework for the current naturalization process. The law also set a residency requirement of five years for those seeking citizenship, as well as a requirement that applicants must demonstrate “good moral character.” The law also established the first naturalization court, which was located in the District of Columbia. The law was later amended in 1795 to expand the number of eligible applicants, including those of African descent.

Naturalization Act of 1790

United States federal law

Naturalization Act of 1790
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titles Naturalization Act
Long title An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.
Enacted by the 1st United States Congress
Effective March 26, 1790
Citations
Public law Pub. L. 1–3
Statutes at Large Stat. 103, chap. 3
Legislative history
  • Passed the House of Representatives on March 4, 1790 ()
  • Passed the Senate on March 19, 1790 () with amendment
  • House of Representatives agreed to Senate amendment on March 22, 1790 () with further amendment
  • Senate agreed to House of Representatives amendment on March 25, 1790 ()
  • Signed into law by President George Washington on March 26, 1790
Major amendments
Naturalization Act of 1795
Wikisource has original text related to this article:

The Naturalization Act of 1790 (1 Stat. 103, enacted March 26, 1790) was a law of the United States Congress that set the first uniform rules for the granting of United States citizenship by naturalization. The law limited naturalization to “free White person(s) … of good character”, thus excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free black people, and later Asians, although free black people were allowed citizenship at the state level in a number of states. The courts also associated whiteness with Christianity, and thus Muslim immigrants were also excluded from citizenship, until the decision Ex Parte Mohriez recognized citizenship for a Saudi Muslim man in 1944.

The Act was modeled on the Plantation Act 1740 with respect to time, oath of allegiance, process of swearing before a judge, etc.

Provisions

There was a two-year residency requirement in the United States and one year in the state of residence before an alien would apply for citizenship, by filing a Petition for Naturalization with “any common law court of record” having jurisdiction over his residence. Once convinced of the applicant’s “good character”, the court would administer an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States. The applicant’s children to age of 21 would also be naturalized. 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 provided that children born abroad when both parents are U.S. citizens “shall be considered as natural born citizens,” but specified that the right of citizenship did “not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.” This act was the only U.S. statute to ever to use the term “natural born citizen”, found in the U.S. Constitution in relation to the prerequisites for a person to serve as president or vice president, and the term was removed by the Naturalization Act of 1795.

Though the Act did not specifically preclude women from citizenship, the common law practice of coverture had been absorbed into the legal system of the United States. Under this practice the physical body of married woman, and thus any rights to her person or property, was controlled by her husband. A woman’s loyalty to her husband was considered above her obligation to the state. Jurisprudence on domestic relations held, that infants, slaves, and women should be excluded from participation in public life and conducting business because they lacked discernment, the right to free will and property, and there was a need to prevent moral depravity and conflicts of loyalty.

Afterward

The Naturalization Act of 1795 repealed and superseded the 1790 Act. The 1795 Act extended the residence requirement to five years, and added a requirement that a prospective applicant needed to give notice of application of three years. The Naturalization Act of 1798 extended the residency requirement to 14 years and notice period to five years. The 1798 Act was repealed by the Naturalization Law of 1802, restoring the residency and notice requirements of the 1795 Act.

With the adoption of the Naturalization Law of 1804, women’s access to citizenship was increasingly tied to their state of marriage. By the end of the 19th century, the overriding consideration to determine women’s citizenship or ability to naturalize was her marital status. Starting in 1907, a women’s nationality was entirely dependent on whether she was married.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which was ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1831, allowed those Choctaw Indians who chose to remain in Mississippi to gain recognition as U.S. citizens, the first major non-European ethnic group to become entitled to U.S. citizenship.

Major changes in citizenship rules were made in the 19th 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, irrespective of race, 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” while also revoking the citizenship of naturalized Chinese Americans.

By virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment and despite the 1870 Act, the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) recognized U.S. birthright citizenship of 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 were not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China. U.S. citizenship of persons born in the United States since Wong Kim Ark have been recognized, although the Supreme Court has never directly made a ruling in relation to children born to parents who are not legal residents in the United States.

Native Americans were granted citizenship in a piecemeal manner until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted them blanket citizenship whether they belonged to a federally recognized tribe or not, though by that date two-thirds of Native Americans had already become U.S. citizens by other means. The Act was not retroactive, so that it did not cover citizens born before the effective date of the 1924 Act or outside of the United States as an indigenous person.

Further changes to racial eligibility for citizenship by naturalization were made after 1940, when eligibility was 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”. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 prohibits racial and gender discrimination in naturalization.

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