Reviewing hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization from 1920, I was surprised—although not terribly so—to read that Senator James Phelan of California had introduced to Congress a revision of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The issue was that American-born Asians, specifically children of Japanese immigrants, had access to citizenship.
“No American should be so credulous as to believe that any of the ‘get’ of Japanese picture brides will ever be Americanized,” a lengthy report attached to the proceedings declared. “Yet because of their birth upon our soil they are automatically endowed with the highest civic privilege that can be given man—the vote of a freeman. Because of his birth he becomes a unit of government in any State of the Union, yet remains just what nature made him—an oriental, without one attribute of American citizenship.”
Senator Phelan’s proposal to “cure the evil” of double allegiance and raise the “standard of American citizenship” was to change the first line of Section One, defining citizenship, of the 14th Amendment. His revision amended the original “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” to the more complicated and cumbersome “All persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof whose parents are white persons, Africans, American Indians, or their descendants, and all persons naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside.” Stipulating what races were eligible for citizenship, the revision also excluded by implication, those who were not, which the House Committee hearings made clear were Japanese and more generally Asians. While the proposed revision never passed, the sentiments it expressed extended, even as Phelan’s term did not, to the 1921 and 1924 Immigration Acts that declared Japanese and other Asian immigrants “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Significantly, however, they did not preclude native-born Asians, or others, from citizenship and its claim to civil rights and equal protection under the law.