Citizenship in the United States

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Date: 2019
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,077 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
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Citizenship is the status of officially belonging to a particular country. Different countries have different citizenship laws. People can have citizenship in more than one country if both countries allow it. In the United States, the Constitution has laws about being a US citizen. People have to follow certain rules to become a US citizen if they are not born in the country.

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Fast Facts

  • Roughly between 600,000 and 800,000 people become naturalized US citizens each year.
  • People have to be eighteen years old to become naturalized US citizens (unless they become citizens through their parents).
  • US citizens can have dual citizenship with other countries.

Citizenship Outlined in the Constitution

The US Constitution is a set of rules and laws that explain how the US government works. It is the most important set of laws in the country. The Constitution explains basic information about US citizenship. It gives the federal government all the power over US citizenship. So, states cannot give US citizenship to people. Only the US government can do this. People can be US citizens in two ways: by birth or by naturalization. People are US citizens by birth if they are born in the United States. They can also become US citizens by being born outside the United States with a parent or parents who are US citizens.

People who are not born as US citizens have to go through the naturalization process to become citizens. This usually takes many years. Often, people move to the United States from another country. Then they apply to the US government for citizenship. People who move to the United States can apply for citizenship after living in the country for five years. People who are married to a US citizen can apply for citizenship after only three years. People who apply have to fill out paperwork. They also have to take a naturalization test. To pass the test, those who want to be citizens have to show that they can read, speak, and write in English. They also have to take a written test about US history and the government. People who fill out the proper paperwork, wait the mandatory time, pass the naturalization test, and meet various requirements can become US citizens.

Some special circumstances change the requirements for becoming a naturalized US citizen. For example, children who are less than eighteen years old can become citizens if their parents become US citizens. Also, people who have served in the US military have some different requirements because they have already served the United States.

The History of Discrimination and US Citizenship

The United States has a long history of discriminating against many different groups of people. One important way that discrimination has presented itself is in the country’s citizenship laws. When the country was first formed in the 1700s, enslaved people living in the United States were not considered legal US citizens even though they were forced to live in the country. After the Civil War, enslaved people were given their freedom. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution freed enslaved people. The Fourteenth Amendment promised that all people born in or naturalized in the United States are citizens. The amendment also said that all citizens should have equal protection under the law.

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Connections: United States v. Wong Kim Ark

The US government passed the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, banning any Chinese residents from becoming US citizens. Many Chinese people who moved to the United States started families. Their children were born in the United States, and the United States was their home for their entire lives. Wong Kim Ark was one of those people. His parents had lived in the United States for twenty years. They moved back China, but Wong remained in the United States. When Wong was twenty-one years old, he traveled to China to see his parents. When he traveled back to the United States, Wong was denied entry into the country because the US government claimed he was not a US citizen. This incident led to court cases that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1898, the Supreme Court decided in Wong’s favor, finding that people who are born in the United States are US citizens based on the Fourteenth Amendment.

Although the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to formerly enslaved people, the country still had racist immigration laws. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned immigration based on a person’s nationality. Some Americans also want to change the process of birthright citizenship, which is the rule that if a person is born inside the United States, that person is a US citizen. Although some people want to end this practice, many legal scholars believe that the Fourteenth Amendment makes birthright citizenship part of the Constitution.

Benefits and Responsibilities of US Citizenship

Citizens of the United States have a number of rights and benefits that people who are not citizens do not have. Furthermore, citizens have a number of responsibilities that they are expected to do for their country. One of the most important rights US citizens have is the right to vote. People living in the United States who are not citizens cannot vote in elections; however, citizens can vote in elections and help choose the leaders in government. US citizens can also bring some family members from other countries to the United States. People who are citizens in the United States can also get jobs with the federal government or become an elected official (though some elected officials have other specific requirements that must be met).

US citizens also have some responsibilities. Voting is both a right and responsibility. Citizens are expected to register to vote and vote in elections because government leaders are elected in the United States, and elections work best when the most possible eligible voters participate. US citizens are also expected to serve on juries. The American justice system relies on jury trials in many cases. The juries have to be made up of citizens, so citizens are expected to willingly serve on juries. Citizens are also expected to tolerate and embrace other citizens of all backgrounds. US citizens are expected to swear their allegiance to the United States. People who become US citizens are supposed to give up allegiance to other countries. US citizens are also expected to defend the US Constitution.

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Words to Know

allegiance
The act of being faithful and loyal to a group, person, or country.
discrimination
Treating a person or a group unfairly.
embrace
To take in or include as part of a group.
naturalization
The process of becoming a citizen of a different nation.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|IVGVWC769039067