Who’s an American Citizen?

(Prepared by Millie Aulbur, Director of Citizenship Education, The Missouri Bar)


  1. To explore the concept of citizenship in the United States.
  2. To explore requirements to be a citizen in the United States
  3. To consider the challenges to becoming a citizen of the United States.


The original Constitution did not define citizenship, but there are some references.  Citizenship requirements are mentioned in the qualifications for representatives (Article I, Section 2.2), senators (Article 1, Section 3.3), and the president (Article II, Section 1.5).  The framers also gave Congress the power to establish naturalization requirements (Article I, Section 8.4), but basically left the matter of citizenship qualifications up to the states.  However, in 1790, Congress passed the first of the Naturalization Acts, which basically declared all free white males to be citizens.   Since that time, citizenship barriers based on race, ethnicity and gender have been declared unconstitutional.

Teaching about Citizenship

    1. For a short but very inclusive history of naturalization laws and history, go to http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu.
    2. The turning point in American history for defining citizenship came with the Dred Scott decision in 1857 and the subsequent passage of the 14th Amendment, which defined citizenship in the United States.  For a simple discussion of the Dred Scott case, please go to www.mobar.org , to the Educators section and then to Constitution Day 2009.
    3. The 14th Amendment states:  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. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  Discuss with students how the 14th Amendment describes citizenship.
    4. All persons born…in the United States is not an entirely simple concept.  Jus soli (law of the soil) provides that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. Citizen.  Jus sanguine (law of the blood) refers to how a person is a United States citizen even if he/she is born outside of the United:
      – A child is also a citizen if he or she was born abroad and both parents are United States citizens at least one of whom resided at some time in the United States or a United States possession.- If only one parent is a US citizen, that parent must have been physically present in the US or possession at least five years prior to the child’s birth, at least two of which were after the age of 14.
    5. One of the controversies related to the jus soli theory of citizenship is the anchor baby dilemma. This term is applied to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants and leads to some very difficult questions. Explore this controversy with the students:  Should illegal immigrants be allowed to stay in the United States because they are the parents of an American citizen?  On the other hand, should an American citizen be deported because the parents are not legally in the country?  Or should the child be allowed to remain in the United States while the parents are deported?
    6. Examine how the 14th Amendment provides protection of the laws to anyone here in the United States, including illegal aliens.  In Wong Wing v. United States (1896), the court declared that illegal aliens enjoy all of the protections afforded a person accused of a crime pursuant to the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments.  In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the court declared a Texas statute unconstitutional that prevented the children of illegal aliens from attending public schools.  Discuss how these two cases relate to the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment.  The majority opinions in both cases provide an excellent insight to the meaning of the 14th Amendment.  These cases may be found at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/index.html.
    7. The Supreme Court of the United State declared it cruel and unusual punishment to strip a person of his/her citizenship as a punishment for military desertion.  See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).   Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion and what he has to say about the importance of citizenship would be excellent Constitution Day reading.  The case may be found at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/index.html.
    8. Discuss requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen:
      • Be at least 18 years old.
      • Have been lawfully admitted to the United States.
      • Have resided as a permanent resident in the United States for at least 5 years or 3 years if you meet all eligibility requirements to file as a spouse of a U.S. citizen
      • Have demonstrated continuous permanent residence
      • Have demonstrated physical presence
      • Demonstrate good moral character
      • Show an attachment to the U.S. Constitution
      • Be able to read, write, speak, and understand basic English
      • Demonstrate a knowledge of U.S. civics (history and government)
      • Take the oath of allegiance to the United States

Do all of these seem reasonable?  Why or why not?

Enrichment activities

  1. Why do many constitutional scholars consider the 14th Amendment the Great Amendment?
  2. Why is the use of the word persons in the 14th Amendment particularly significant?
  3. Why did it take so long for people of color and women to obtain the full rights and privileges of citizenship?
  4. What groups in our country today are relying on the 14th Amendment to make sure their rights are protected?
  5. What is dual citizenship? Do you think it is a good idea to allow Americans to be both an American citizen and a citizen in another country?  Why or why not?
  6. Why did it take legislation to establish the citizenship of Native Americans?

Follow up enrichment activities:

  1. If you had been a Framer, one of the men who wrote the Constitution, would you have put provisions in the Constitution that would have prevented the outcome of the Dred Scott case? Why or why not?  What would those provisions had been?
  2. Explore some of the court cases that have relied on the 14th Amendment to gain full citizenship rights regarding educational opportunities: Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. CanadaSweatt v. PainterMcClaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, Brown v. Board of Education, Plyler v. Doe.  These cases may be found at findlaw.com or at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/index.html.
  3. Explore the rights of citizenship in regard to the Japanese internment during World War II by reading the majority and dissenting opinions in Korematsu United States, (1944). Note:  The U.S. Government officially apologized for the internment in the 1980s and paid reparations totaling $1.2 billion, as well as an additional $400 million in benefits signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1992.  For an outstanding lesson plan on this case, go to www.landmarkcases.org.
  4. The question of the rights of citizens arose during the Civil War as the right of habeas corpus. Explore the cases of Ex parte Milligan (1866) and Ex parte Merryman (1861).  Similar issues have arisen in regards to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  Have students read the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) for a 21st century discussion on this matter.
  5. Attend a naturalization ceremony at a federal courthouse. This is an unforgettable experience.