America Should Leave the Creation of Permanent Underclasses in Its Past

Juan Carlos Huezo Fuentes, who was born in El Salvador and now lives in San Jose, California, holds up a U.S. flag during a rally for immigrant rights in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, Thursday, October 2, 2003.

As the building momentum for immigration reform across the nation translates into congressional action, members of Congress should remember an important lesson from our history books: When viewed through the dispassionate lens of hindsight, Americans have harshly judged those instances when Congress and the courts denied citizenship to specific groups of people. And for good reason: Each of those points in our history constituted a betrayal of America’s core values of equality, justice, and opportunity for all.

As the debate heats up over creating a path to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, here is a brief history lesson on some of the most significant times Congress—with the blessing of the courts—has used the law to exclude groups of people from full membership in our country.

Slavery and reconstruction

After the nation’s founding, lawmakers stipulated that American citizenship excluded both free and enslaved Africans, who comprised roughly 20 percent of the entire U.S. population in 1776. The Supreme Court reaffirmed in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 that slaves could not claim citizenship, as they were considered property by the law. Slavery was abolished in the United States upon ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but that constitutional amendment left African Americans in a legal limbo that denied them the right to vote and set the foundation for widespread segregation and economic exploitation. Even after the 14th and 15th Amendments nominally granted them full citizenship and voting rights, state laws instituting poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as segregation and antimiscegenation laws, immobilized African Americans in a second class of citizenship.

The Mexican-American War

The Mexican-American War ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded the land that is now the American Southwest. In return, all Mexicans living on that land were to be granted full U.S. citizenship. Congress and the Supreme Court, however, denied American citizenship to Pueblo Indians and black Mexicans, though both groups had previously enjoyed Mexican citizenship.

Pueblo Indians’ right to vote was revoked until 1924. Black Mexicans in Texas were given the choice to either stay in Texas and become slaves or be deported back to Mexico, where slavery was outlawed. Meanwhile, the courts chipped away at the property protections entitled to Mexican landowners as U.S. citizens. Many new Mexican Americans lost their family land to white American settlers, which threw them into poverty for generations. Of course, Pueblo Indians and black Mexicans’ property rights were immediately nullified.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

After initially encouraging Chinese migrant workers to come to the United States and work on the Transcontinental Railroad, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to halt all immigration from China. At that point, large communities of Chinese immigrants, mainly in California, were permanently excluded from U.S. citizenship. The law also threw families into limbo, as Chinese men could neither bring their families to the United States nor leave the country, as they would be barred from re-entry into the United States.

In the decades following its enactment, amendments to the act extended the law, blocking entry to all Asians regardless of their country of origin. American-born Chinese who traveled abroad were blocked from returning to their U.S. homes. These restrictions pulled families apart and ensured that already-established Chinese American communities would stagnate for 60 years. The exclusion acts were finally repealed in 1943.

Japanese internment

Japanese Americans were singled out as enemies during World War II and ordered to relocate to internment camps—essentially prison camps—for the duration of the war. Japanese immigrants were already prevented from becoming full citizens, as naturalization laws banned citizenship for nonwhite people. American citizens of Japanese descent, however, were not spared from the internment camps, where they endured abysmal, overcrowded conditions for three years. When they returned, most found their homes looted or sold and their jobs long gone.


With close to three-quarters of Americans supporting the creation of a path to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, it’s time for Congress to bring our laws into alignment with our values. We have learned through our past mistakes and triumphs that those who are truly committed to our nation should have a fair shot at full citizenship in it. Let’s make sure our elected leaders don’t forget that lesson.

Aviva Shen is a General Reporter at ThinkProgress.