ArtI.S8.C4.1.2.4 Naturalization as an Exclusive Power of Congress

Article I, Section 8, Clause 4:

[The Congress shall have Power . . . ] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States; . . .

While the first Congress enacted federal laws governing naturalization, the Supreme Court initially appeared to recognize that states retained naturalization powers. For instance, in one early case, Collet v. Collet, the Court in 1792 declared that the states continued to have “concurrent authority” over naturalization, but could not exercise that authority in a manner that conflicted with federal naturalization laws.1 In United States v. Villato, the Court in 1797 ruled that a Spanish national, Francis Villato, was not a U.S. citizen even though he had taken an oath of citizenship under Pennsylvania law.2 Without deciding whether states maintained naturalization powers, the Court simply determined that the Pennsylvania law under which Villato sought to naturalize had been effectively repealed by an amendment to the state’s constitution.3 Accordingly, the Court held, Villato never became a U.S. citizen and could not be criminally charged with treason.4

Despite the Supreme Court’s early recognition of state power over naturalization, the Court ultimately determined that the naturalization power rested solely within Congress. For example, in Chirac v. Lessee of Chirac, Chief Justice John Marshall in 1817 declared “[t]hat the power of naturalization is exclusively in [C]ongress does not seem to be, and certainly ought not to be, controverted.” 5 Therefore, in that case, a French national did not have the ability to own land (a privilege generally extended only to U.S. citizens at the time) based on the fact that he had taken an oath of citizenship under Maryland law because “[C]ongress alone has the power of prescribing uniform rules of naturalization.” 6 Nonetheless, the Court held that a 1778 treaty between the United States and France permitted French nationals to purchase and own lands in the United States.7

2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 294, 296 (1792) (quoting U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 4). back
2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 370, 373 (1797). back
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Chirac v. Lessee of Chirac, 15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 259, 269 (1817). back
Id. at 269. According to Chief Justice John Marshall, the Maryland naturalization law was “virtually repealed by the [C]onstitution of the United States, and the act of naturalization enacted by [C]ongress.” Id. back
Id. at 270–71. See also Matthew’s Lessee v. Rae, 16 F. Cas. (3 Cranch) 1112 (C.C.D.D.C. 1829) (No. 9,284) (ruling that an alien who complied with state naturalization laws after Congress had passed a naturalization law was not a U.S. citizen because “the state naturalization laws [were] superseded, and annulled by the act of [C]ongress, whose jurisdiction upon that subject is, under the [C]onstitution of the United States, exclusive. . . .” ). back