ArtI.S8.C4.1.1 Nature and Scope of Congress’s Power

Article I, Section 8, Clause 4:

[The Congress shall have Power . . .] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States; . . .

Naturalization has been defined by the Supreme Court as the act of adopting a foreigner, and clothing him with the privileges of a native citizen.1 In the Dred Scott case, 2 the Court asserted that the power of Congress under this clause applies only to persons born in a foreign country, under a foreign Government.3 These dicta are much too narrow to describe the power that Congress has actually exercised on the subject. The competence of Congress in this field merges, in fact, with its indefinite, inherent powers in the field of foreign relations. As a government, the United States is invested with all the attributes of sovereignty. As it has the character of nationality it has the powers of nationality, especially those which concern its relations and intercourse with other countries.4

Congress’s power over naturalization is an exclusive power; no state has the independent power to constitute a foreign subject a citizen of the United States. 5 But power to naturalize aliens under federal standards may be, and was early, devolved by Congress upon state courts of record. 6 And though the states may not prescribe requirements for citizenship, they may confer rights, including political rights, to resident aliens. At one time, it was not uncommon for states to confer the right of suffrage upon resident aliens, especially upon those who had declared their intention to become citizens, and several states continued to do so until well into the twentieth century. 7

Citizenship by naturalization is a privilege to be given or withheld as Congress may determine: It is not within the province of the courts to make bargains with those who seek naturalization. They must accept the grant and take the oath in accordance with the terms fixed by the law, or forego the privilege of citizenship. There is no middle choice.8 This interpretation makes of the naturalization power the only power granted in § 8 of Article I that is unrestrained by constitutional limitations on its exercise. Thus, the first naturalization act enacted by the first Congress restricted naturalization to free white person[s],9 which was expanded in 1870 so that persons of African nativity and . . . descent were entitled to be naturalized. 10 Chinese laborers were specifically excluded from eligibility in 1882, 11 and the courts enforced these provisions without any indication that constitutional issues were thereby raised. 12 These exclusions are no longer law. Present naturalization statutes continue to require loyalty and good moral character and generally bar subversives, terrorists, and criminals, among others, from citizenship. 13

Although the usual form of naturalization is through individual application and official response on the basis of general congressional rules, naturalization is not so limited. Citizenship can be conferred by special act of Congress, 14 it can be conferred collectively either through congressional action, such as the naturalization of all residents of an annexed territory or of a territory made a state, 15 or through treaty provision. 16

Footnotes

  1.  Boyd v. Nebraska ex rel. Thayer, 143 U.S. 135, 162 (1892).
  2.  Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857).
  3.  60 U.S. at 417.
  4.  Mackenzie v. Hare, 239 U.S. 299, 311 (1915).
  5.  Chirac v. Chirac, 15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 259, 269 (1817); United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 701 (1898).
  6.  The first naturalization act, 1 Stat. 103 (1790), so provided. See 8 U.S.C. § 1421. In Holmgren v. United States, 217 U.S. 509 (1910), the Court held that Congress may provide for the punishment of false swearing in the proceedings in state courts.
  7.  Rosberg, Aliens and Equal Protection: Why Not the Right to Vote?, 75 Mich. L. Rev. 1092 (1977). See Spragins v. Houghton, 3 Ill. 377 (1840); Stewart v. Foster, 2 Binn. (Pa.) 110 (1809). See also K. Porter, A History of Suffrage in the United States ch. 5 (1918).
  8.  United States v. Macintosh, 283 U.S. 605 (1931). See also Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698, 707-08 (1893). Though Congress broadly controls the path to naturalization in the United States, it is restricted in conditioning the retention of citizenship so conferred. The Fourteenth Amendment declares persons born or naturalized in the United States to be citizens, and Congress may not distinguish among classes of Fourteenth Amendment citizens in setting rules for expatriation (assuming the absence of fraud in obtaining naturalization). Schneider v. Rusk, 377 U.S. 163 (1964). By contrast, Congress controls by statute who born abroad becomes a U.S. citizen at birth (based generally on the citizenship status of the parents), at times has conditioned this statutory citizenship on subsequent periodic residence in the United States, and has had relinquishment of citizenship for failure to meet this condition subsequent upheld by the Court. Rogers v. Bellei, 401 U.S. 815 (1971).
  9.  1 Stat. 103 (1790).
  10.  Act of July 14, 1870, § 7, 16 Stat. 254, 256.
  11.  Act of May 6, 1882, § 1, 22 Stat. 58. The statute defined Chinese laborers to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining. 22 Stat. 61.
  12.  Cf. Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922); United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923); Toyota v. United States, 268 U.S. 402 (1925); Morrison v. California, 291 U.S. 82 (1934). The Court refused to review the only case in which the constitutional issue was raised and rejected. Kharaiti Ram Samras v. United States, 125 F.2d 879 (9th Cir. 1942), cert. denied, 317 U.S. 634 (1942).
  13.  The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, 1 Stat. 570, empowered the President to deport any alien he found dangerous to the peace and safety of the Nation. In 1903, Congress provided for denial of naturalization and for deportation for mere belief in certain doctrines, i.e., anarchy. Act of March 3, 1903, 32 Stat. 1214. See United States ex rel. Turner v. Williams, 194 U.S. 279 (1904). The range of forbidden views was broadened in 1918 (Act of October 15, 1918, § 1, 40 Stat. 1012) and periodically thereafter. The present law is discussed in The Naturalization of Aliens, infra.
  14.  E.g., 77 Stat. 5 (1963) (making Sir Winston Churchill an honorary citizen of the United States).
  15.  Boyd v. Nebraska ex rel. Thayer, 143 U.S. 135 (1892); Contzen v. United States, 179 U.S. 191 (1900).
  16.  Boyd v. Nebraska ex rel. Thayer, 143 U.S. 135, 164, 168-69 (1892).