The UnConstitutionality of Citizenship by Birth to Non-Americans

The 14th Amendment

By P.A. Madison
Former Research Fellow in Constitutional Studies
February 1, 2005

We well know how the courts and laws have spoken on the subject of children born to non-citizens (illegal aliens) within the jurisdiction of the United States by declaring them to be American citizens. But what does the constitution of the United States say about the issue of giving American citizenship to anyone born within its borders? As we explore the constitutions citizenship clause, as found in the Fourteenth Amendment, we can find no constitutional authority to grant such citizenship to persons born to non-American citizens within the limits of the United States of America.

We are, or should be, familiar with the phrase, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the States wherein they reside." This can be referred to as the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but what does "subject to the jurisdiction" mean? Jurisdiction can take on different meanings that can have nothing to do with physical boundaries alone--and if the framers meant geographical boundaries they would have simply used the term "limits" rather than "jurisdiction" since that was the custom at the time when distinguishing between physical boundaries and reach of law.

Fortunately, we have the highest possible authority on record to answer this question of how the term "jurisdiction" was to be interpreted and applied, the author of the citizenship clause, Sen. Jacob M. Howard (MI) to tell us exactly what it means and its intended scope as he introduced it to the United States Senate in 1866:

Mr. HOWARD: I now move to take up House joint resolution No. 127.

The motion was agreed to; and the Senate, as in Committee of the Whole, resumed the consideration of the joint resolution (H.R. No. 127) proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The first amendment is to section one, declaring that all "persons born in the United States and Subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside. I do not propose to say anything on that subject except that the question of citizenship has been fully discussed in this body as not to need any further elucidation, in my opinion. This amendment which I have offered is simply declaratory of what I regard as the law of the land already, that every person born within the limits of the United States, and subject to their jurisdiction, is by virtue of natural law and national law a citizen of the United States. This will not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the Government of the United States, but will include every other class of persons. It settles the great question of citizenship and removes all doubt as to what persons are or are not citizens of the United States. This has long been a great desideratum in the jurisprudence and legislation of this country.[1]

It is clear the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had no intention of freely giving away American citizenship to just anyone simply because they may have been born on American soil, something our courts have wrongfully assumed. But what exactly did "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" mean to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment? Again, we are fortunate to have on record the highest authority to tell us, Sen. Lyman Trumbull, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, author of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the one who inserted the phrase:

[T]he provision is, that 'all persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens.' That means 'subject to the complete jurisdiction thereof.' What do we mean by 'complete jurisdiction thereof?' Not owing allegiance to anybody else. That is what it means.

Trumbull continues, "Can you sue a Navajo Indian in court? Are they in any sense subject to the complete jurisdiction of the United States? By no means. We make treaties with them, and therefore they are not subject to our jurisdiction. If they were, we wouldn't make treaties with them...It is only those persons who come completely within our jurisdiction, who are subject to our laws, that we think of making citizens; and there can be no objection to the proposition that such persons should be citizens.[2]

Sen. Howard concurs with Trumbull's construction:

Mr. HOWARD: I concur entirely with the honorable Senator from Illinois [Trumbull], in holding that the word "jurisdiction," as here employed, ought to be construed so as to imply a full and complete jurisdiction on the part of the United States, whether exercised by Congress, by the executive, or by the judicial department; that is to say, the same jurisdiction in extent and quality as applies to every citizen of the United States now.[3]

In other words, only children born to American citizens can be considered citizens of the United States since only a American citizen could enjoy the "extent and quality" of jurisdiction of an American citizen now. Sen. Johnson, speaking on the Senate floor, offers his comments and understanding of the proposed new amendment to the constitution:

[Now], all this amendment [citizenship clause] provides is, that all persons born in the United States and not subject to some foreign Power--for that, no doubt, is the meaning of the committee who have brought the matter before us--shall be considered as citizens of the United States. That would seem to be not only a wise but a necessary provision. If there are to be citizens of the United States there should be some certain definition of what citizenship is, what has created the character of citizen as between himself and the United States, and the amendment says that citizenship may depend upon birth, and I know of no better way to give rise to citizenship than the fact of birth within the territory of the United States, born to parents who at the time were subject to the authority of the United States.[4]

No doubt in the Senate as to what the citizenship clause means as further evidenced by Sen. W. Williams:

In one sense, all persons born within the geographical limits of the United States are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, but they are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in every sense. Take the child of an ambassador. In one sense, that child born in the United States is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, because if that child commits the crime of murder, or commits any other crime against the laws of the country, to a certain extent he is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, but not in every respect; and so with these Indians. All persons living within a judicial district may be said, in one sense, to be subject to the jurisdiction of the court in that district, but they are not in every sense subject to the jurisdiction of the court until they are brought, by proper process, within the reach of the power of the court. I understand the words here, 'subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,' to mean fully and completely subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.[5]

Rep. John Bingham of Ohio, considered the father of the Fourteenth Amendment, confirms the understanding and construction the framers used in regards to birthright and jurisdiction while speaking on civil rights of citizens in the House on March 9, 1866:

[I] find no fault with the introductory clause [S 61 Bill], which is simply declaratory of what is written in the Constitution, that every human being born within the jurisdiction of the United States of parents not owing allegiance to any foreign sovereignty is, in the language of your Constitution itself, a natural born citizen...[6]

Further convincing evidence for the demand of complete allegiance required for citizenship can be found in the "Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America," an oath required to become an American citizen of the United States. It reads in part:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen...

Of course, this very oath leaves no room for dual-citizenship, but that is another troubling disregard for our National principles by modern government. Fewer today are willing to renounce completely their allegiance to their natural country of origin, further making a mockery of our citizenship laws. In fact, recently in Los Angeles you could find the American flag discarded for the flag of Mexico in celebration after taking the American Citizenship Oath.

It's noteworthy to point out a Supreme Court ruling in Afroyim v. Rusk, 387 U.S. 253 (1967), where the court completely discarded the fourteenth's Citizenship Clause scope and intent by replacing it with their own invented Citizenship Clause. The court in effect, ruled that fourteenth amendment had elevated citizenship to a new constitutionally protected right, and thus, prevents the cancellation of a persons citizenship unless they assent.

Unfortunately for the court, Sen. Howard effectively shoots down this feeble attempt to replace his clause with their own home grown Citizenship Clause. Firstly, Howard finds no incompatibility with expatriation and the fourteenth's Citizenship Clause when he says: "I take it for granted that when a man becomes a citizen of the United States under the Constitution he cannot cease to be a citizen, except by expatriation for the commission of some crime by which his citizenship shall be forfeited."

Secondly, Sen. Howard expressly stated, "I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me and hold lands and deal in every other way that a citizen of the United States has a right to do."

The question begs: If Howard had no intention of passing a sweeping act of naturalization--how does the court elevate Howard's Citizenship Clause to a new constitutionally protected right that cannot be taken away since this would certainly require a sweeping act with explicit language to enumerate such a new constitutional right? Remember, the court cannot create new rights that are not already expressly granted by the constitution.

A third problem for the court is the fact both Howard and Bingham viewed the citizenship clause as simply "declaratory" of what they regarded "as the law of the land already." This then requires flights of fantasy to elevate Howard's express purpose of inserting the Citizenship Clause as simply removing "all doubt as to what persons are or are not citizens of the United States," and not to elevate citizenship to a new protected constitutional right. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right as say the right to freedom of religion is, and therefore, can be taken away just as any other privilege can be.

James Madison defined who America seeked to be citizens among us along with some words of wisdom:

When we are considering the advantages that may result from an easy mode of naturalization, we ought also to consider the cautions necessary to guard against abuse. It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours. But why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.[7]

What does it all mean?

In a nutshell, it means this: The constitution of the United States does not grant citizenship at birth to just anyone who happens to be born within American borders. It is the allegiance (complete jurisdiction) of the child's birth parents at the time of birth that determines the child's citizenship--not geographical location. If the United States does not have complete jurisdiction, for example, to compel a child's parents to Jury Duty - then the U.S. does not have the total, complete jurisdiction demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment to make their child a citizen of the United States by birth. How could it possibly be any other way?

The framers succeeded in their desire to remove all doubt as to what persons are or are not citizens of the United States. They also succeeded in making both their intent and construction clear for future generations of courts and government. Whether our government or courts will start to honor and uphold the supreme law of the land for which they are obligated to by oath, is another very disturbing matter.


[1]. Congressional Globe, 39th Congress (1866) pg. 2890 (view actual page)
[2]. Id. at 2893
[3]. Id. at 2895
[4]. Id. at 2893
[5]. Id. at 2897
[6]. Id. at 1291
[7]. James Madison on Rule of Naturalization, 1st Congress, Feb. 3, 1790.

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