Why Birthright Citizenship is a Civil Rights Issue We Can't Afford to Ignore
The 14th Amendment continues to protect Black Americans
The moment a baby is born in America, they become not only a beloved member of their family but also a citizen entitled to the rights and legal protections enshrined in the Constitution. However, this was not always the case. Indeed, the concept of "birthright citizenship" began not at the birth of the nation but as a civil rights issue after the Civil War ended. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, sought to protect the status of formerly enslaved Black Americans by granting citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States" and providing them with "equal civil and legal rights." And yet, few realize that the topic of birthright citizenship has anything to do with Black people. Many will, instead, insist that birthright citizenship is an issue that only impacts immigrants, which couldn't be further from the truth.
Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, noted that during the 1830s, Black Americans who attended Colored Conventions developed a strategy to resist racist Black Codes, or Jim Crow legislation, one that would establish Black citizenship as legitimate. Since the Naturalization Act of 1790 "limited access to U.S. citizenship to White immigrants," Black Americans realized they needed an amendment to expand citizenship. As non-citizens before the Civil War, the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford claimed that an enslaved Black man had no right to petition the court for any grievance, that he was considered property, and not a citizen. As Jones wrote in The Atlantic, "Black laws restricted everyday life — work, travel, worship — to such a degree that black men and women felt squeezed out and many considered self-deportation." So, to be clear, Black people fought to become citizens, not because they idolized America or worshiped at the altar of nationalism, but because they needed to become citizens to protect themselves. Thus, the concept of being born American is inseparable from Black history.