What You Need to Know About… The 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause

“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.”


The opening sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants citizenship rights to anyone “born or naturalized in the United States,” is a repudiation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. The 1857 ruling, widely remembered as one of the worst in the court’s history, declared that African Americans were not citizens under the original Constitution — and was one of the precipitating events that led to the Civil War.


Today, the Citizenship Clause grants “birthright” citizenship even to the children of non-citizen parents, independent of their immigration status. By granting this right, the Framers rejected the white supremacist vision pervading the original Constitution. As the Supreme Court later explained in the case of a child born to Chinese parents, the provision for citizenship in the text of the clause “was not intended to be confined to those of any particular race or class, but to embrace equally all races, classes and conditions of men.”


During a 1987 speech, Justice Thurgood Marshall spoke more broadly about how the principle of equal citizenship embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment applied to those born in this country: “[T]he goal of a true democracy such as ours, explained simply, is that any baby born in these United States, even if he is born to the . . . most unprivileged Negro in Mississippi, is, merely by being born and drawing his first breath in this democracy, endowed with the exact same rights as a child born to a Rockefeller.”


Some have contended that the Citizenship Clause should be read narrowly to exclude children of undocumented immigrants, but that’s a minority view that isn’t supported by the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment, nor by precedents interpreting it. In this regard, the Citizenship Clause is like other components of the amendment: a provision meant to promote civic equality once denied to African Americans and others our Constitution excluded from our polity.