The 1860s in America was a tumultuous time. The Civil War started in 1861 and ended in 1865. Afterward, the Reconstruction Era produced three new Constitutional amendments.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution officially ended slavery in America. It was ratified on December 3, 1865. The 14th Amendment, ratified on July 28, 1868, granted full citizenship to the formerly enslaved people, something southern governments had been holding out on since the end of the Civil War. The 15th Amendment, the final of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, granted African American males the right to vote and was ratified on March 30, 1870.
In the past month, questions about the 14th Amendment have come to the forefront of the national stage. Many ask to whom it grants citizenship. The discussion is spurred by a group of migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America–Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador–seeking asylum from persecution and poverty in the United States and Mexico.
There’s fear that if any of the migrants enter the U.S. illegally and have children, those children will become U.S. citizens.
What the 14th Amendment Says About Citizenship
As mentioned above, the 14th Amendment gave former slaves the same citizenship benefits as white Americans. The 14th Amendment only deals with African American citizenship. That is the only group the amendment applies to. (The 14th Amendment did not pertain to Native Americans. They were granted citizenship in 1924 through a separate Congressional act.)
What the 14th Amendment Doesn’t Say About Citizenship
The 14th Amendment doesn’t define how to become a citizen. It wasn’t intended to determine how newcomers would or would not become citizens. That power, as the National Review elaborates, goes to Congress. Instead, the 14th Amendment and the other Reconstruction amendments are designed to remove any lingering relics of slavery from America.
How the U.S. Grants Citizenship
So if the 14th Amendment only grants citizenship to African Americans who were formerly enslaved, how is citizenship granted to other groups ? Currently, U.S. policy states that if someone is a citizens or lawful, permanent resident, their children are citizens. In order to become a legal citizen of the United States, there are certain steps a person must follow. Immigration laws are complex and generally require the guidance of an attorney to navigate.
As the immigration debate escalates, it’s a great time to refresh your knowledge of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment exists to give citizenship and its benefits to pre-Civil War slaves.