Thursday, June 3, 2010


When I tell people that R was born in Egypt, they ask, “So does that make her an Egyptian (or dual) citizen?” The short answer is no. Citizenship in Egypt is determined by the nationality of the father; therefore, I would have to be an Egyptian citizen for her to claim Egyptian citizenship.

In the United States, however, citizenship can be either patrilineal or matrilineal for a child born abroad to a citizen parent, as is our case. For R, it was a relatively straightforward process since both of her parents are US-born citizens and there are no complicating factors like unmarried parents, one non-citizen parent, missing documents, multiple passports, long-term residence abroad, etc.

This was only an issue because hers was the birth of a US citizen abroad. When someone is born in the US, their parents’ citizenship (at least as I understand it) is less an issue because citizenship is determined by their place of birth. I have Egyptian friends and students who are US citizens because they were born, for example, while their parents were doing a medical residency in the US. (And in many of these cases, they have siblings, a few years older or younger, born elsewhere who is not a US citizen.) I don’t know the citizenship laws of many places, but this law is particularly American and is, in many instances, the source of the question I get asked. Usually, though not exclusively, it is Americans who ask about her citizenship. Based on our country’s laws, we may reasonably presume that one’s birthplace always grants citizenship.

While this is clearly not the case, why does the US do it? The answer has its roots, as do many questions of US policy, in slavery. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the US granted to citizenship “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves. A law that based citizenship on parentage would have continued to disfranchise African Americans (and instead the courts and legislatures had to find alternative ways to effectively do that). The Constitution was amended in the wake of the Civil War in order to guarantee citizenship to the descendants of slaves in perpetuity. This history makes this law sacred.

It also means that anyone born in the US is guaranteed to be a citizen of some place. This might seem obvious, but it is not. In Egypt, for example, Palestinians who were born here typically can not become Egyptian citizens (and don’t have citizenship or a passport). Imagine a population, all born in the US over the course of several generations, who are not eligible for citizenship.

Actually there were huge exceptions to the 14th amendment. Native Americans were excluded from the 14th amendment based on their tribal citizenship until at least 1924 when the parameters for citizenship were made territorial rather than juridical. And of course, there have been decades of de facto exclusion from many of the rights conferred by citizenship on African Americans, Native Americans, and others.

While there is a lot of debate in the US about immigration, I have not heard much discussion of the important constitutional reasons why the US, given its particular history, grants citizenship in the way that it does. I have been thinking about all of this in connection to the hateful immigration law in Arizona. The expansion of citizenship in the 14th amendment gave the 13th (abolition) meaning and the 15th (franchise) a foundation. I have not heard the Tea Party arguing for the repeal of the 14th amendment yet, but I think people need to recognize that this history of expanding opportunities for citizenship is worthy of celebration, and look for more opportunities to enfranchise all people who reside in the US.

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