Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A short history of the 14th Amendment

A child participates in a parade of flags, October 2010
A child participates in a parade of flags, October 2010
Photo by Cliff 1066/Flickr (Creative Commons)

We've featured some of the text from the 1868 amendment to the United States Constitution and what the amendment entails, as well as the model bill that some conservative state legislators hope will force federal judges to revise it in their quest to deny U.S. citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants.

The amendment itself has a long and storied history, dating to just after the Civil War. Worth highlighting is the landmark late 1800s legal case that set the precedent for how it is interpreted, and which involved the U.S.-born son of Chinese immigrants.

The 14th Amendment was one of three changes to the Constitution during and after the Civil War era known as the Reconstruction Amendments: The 13th abolished slavery, the 15th prohibited the states from denying the vote to anyone based solely on race. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History's website has a detailed article from a Columbia University history professor on how the amendment came to be, placing it in historical context.

From the piece:

...the Fourteenth Amendment was the most important constitutional change in the nation’s history since the Bill of Rights. Its heart was the first section, which declared all persons born or naturalized in the United States (except Indians) to be both national and state citizens, and which prohibited the states from abridging their “privileges and immunities,” depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or denying them “equal protection of the laws.”

In clothing with constitutional authority the principle of equality before the law regardless of race, enforced by the national government, this amendment permanently transformed the definition of American citizenship as well as relations between the federal government and the states, and between individual Americans and the nation. We live today in a legal and constitutional system shaped by the Fourteenth Amendment.

A Library of Congress website that catalogues important documents in African American history has more on the amendment's history, including a link to an image of the resolution that called for the constitutional amendment to be made.

The Senate passed the 14th Amendment on June 8, 1866, by a vote of 33 to 11, according to the site; the House of Representatives approved it June 13, 1866, by a vote of 120 to 32. It was ratified July 28, 1868.

More details, from one of the Library of Congress links:

The amendment grants citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" which included former slaves who had just been freed after the Civil War. The amendment had been rejected by most Southern states but was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states. Known as the "Reconstruction Amendment," it forbids any state to deny any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

And perhaps not surprisingly, as more foreigners began arriving, the law was challenged as it pertained to immigrants. The precedent-setting court case that set the stage for the present legislative challenge brewing in Washington, D.C. and state capitals today took place at a time when the political climate was hostile to Chinese immigrants and their descendants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which blocked nearly all immigration from China, had been enacted in 1882. In the summer of 1895, a young man named Wong Kim Ark was returning to his native San Francisco by steamship after a trip to China to visit his parents, who had returned there to live after many years in the United States, where he was born. Upon his arrival, he was denied re-entry on the grounds that he was not a U.S. citizen.

The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in March 1898 that he was indeed a citizen, citing the first section of the 14th Amendment. From the Supreme Court case:

It is conceded that, if he is a citizen of the United States, the acts of Congress, known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, prohibiting persons of the Chinese race, and especially Chinese laborers, from coming into the United States, do not and cannot apply to him.

The question presented by the record is whether a child born in the United States, of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicil and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, becomes at the time of his birth a citizen of the United States by virtue of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution,

"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."