Centuries Apart: Defining Citizenship

A Venn Diagram Analysis of the Naturalization Act of 1790 and Secure Communities

In order to aptly explicate the pathways through which immigration policy, rhetoric, and actions have played out across temporal and geographic boundaries, one must first understand the premier tools to utilize in that journey. For all intents and purposes, the following words, sentences, and paragraphs will apply C. Wright Mill’s concept of the “Sociological Imagination.” Delineating between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure,” Mills defines the sociological imagination as something that, in essence, enables “us” to “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society” (Mills, 1961, p. 15). In employing both history and biography, there is a clear correlation to be found in various immigration law. In other words, when sociohistorical landscapes are taken in tandem, rhetoric spanning centuries is illuminated. To better illustrate this connection-incubator, below is a comparative look at the 1790 Naturalization Act and Secure Communities.

Before continuing on, it is important to note when explaining these two governmental actions that 1790 and 2008 were vastly different times concerning race, gender, and class. However, this paper will not fall privy to popular ideals of a post racial America, wholly separated from its discriminatory past. In “Protecting America’s Borders and the Undocumented Immigrant Dilemma,” David Gutiérrez explains, “the logic of privilege, exclusion, and sharp racial and gender boundaries that lay at the heart of the nation’s original political community was also expressed in the United States’ first laws regulating immigration and naturalization” (Gutiérrez, 2014, p. 126). Said law, one that stuck until 1848, allowed the rights of citizenship only to “free white [male] person[s]‌” (Gutiérrez, 2014, p. 126). The primary goal, whether stated officially or not, was to define citizenship, in large part, by who would be excluded: people of color, women, and slaves. More than 200 years later, Secure Communities was piloted in 2008 under Former President George W. Bush. The American Civil Liberties Union, founded in 1920, describes how the action works:

In jurisdictions where S-Comm has been activated, any time an individual is arrested and booked into a local jail for any reason, his or her fingerprints are electronically run through ICE’s immigration database.  This allows ICE to identify people who may be non-citizens—including lawful immigrants and permanent residents—and potentially to initiate deportation proceedings against them (Aclu).

The goal of Secure Communities was to foster a pipeline of information from local to federal governments, for the purpose of simplifying the practical difficulties attached to finding non-citizens in individual communities. Yet, when played out, S-Comm jurisdictions aided in solidifying and reproducing racial stereotypes which posit some as inherently outside the desired parameters of the United States.

Looking at these two policies with the intentionality attached to every venn diagram, there are foundational similarities and differences. Metaphorically, it is beneficial to think of the U.S.’s immigration system as a family tree, with all the irony this analogy allows. Just as ancestral DNA passes down characteristics to subsequent generations, so immigration legislation is bound to its prior iterations. Both the Naturalization Act and Secure Communities delineate citizenship in large part by race, gender, and class. While the former is unarguably more aggressive in its oppressive boundaries, the latter failed to account for the already racist and sexist environment it was stepping into. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American fact tank based in Washington, D.C., the vast majority of those deported under George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations were from Mexico and the three Northern Triangle nations in Central America (Pew, 2018). This is unsurprising data when considering that 32.2% of the U.S. prison population is Hispanic, despite making up only 17.8% of the general population, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Census Bureau, respectively (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2018, US Census Bureau, 2018). On a divergent aside, the two policies differ in motivation and inception. The 1790 Act was birthed with the clear intention of excluding people of color, women, and those of low class. There was no bow of equality placed upon it, attempting to market it as an inclusive move for all people. Whereas Secure Communities operates within a racist, classist, and sexist society, it was not pitched as legislation averse to systematically disadvantaged communities. Due in part to society’s supposed dislike for overt bigotry, and in part to the acknowledgement of Obama’s other actions supporting people of color, women, and other oppressed groups, S-Comms should be seen as supporting racist institutions instead of creating them, as the Naturalization Act did.

Moreover, both policies find their nexus in structures of control, but deviate in political strategy. The process of marking one human as a citizen and another as less than such is eternally based in power relations decided by the few and enacted on the masses. Even progressive innovations which attempt to accept individuals based on skill or workable characteristics are as much for the purpose of categorizing who is wanted as statutes which state who is not. However, as politics have become more divided on the topic of immigration, some actions by left-leaning folks, such as Obama, have more to do with compromise and less to do with ideological purity. Notwithstanding the fact that compromising on racism, sexism, and classism is still, by denotation, those very things, Obama implemented harsh immigration legislation instead of comprehensive immigration reform because he did not have the numbers in Congress to sway the pendulum his way. In any case, regardless of why it was created, how it was implemented, and what its goal was, the question thus becomes “Did the policy have its intended effect?”

The Naturalization Act of 1790, as Gutiérrez attests, helped build the understanding in the early formings of the United States that citizenship “was at least tacitly defined against a shadowy but vast body of inhabitants who, while recognized as permanent features of the new national landscape, were nevertheless imagined to be beyond the pale of formal membership in the polity” (Gutiérrez, 2014, p. 125). Today, a nation in which people of color and women still face higher policing and less benefits under the law, it is safe to say that the Act in 1970 had the rippling effects it desired, and perhaps more than its creators could even imagine. Borrowing heavily from the aforementioned Act’s framework of exclusion, S-Comms succeeded in numbers but not in humanitarianism. Numerically, between Fiscal Year 2009 and 2014, 375,031 immigrants were “Removed or Returned” (ICE, 2014). 108,226 of those, about 29%, were categorized as “Level 3,” or “aliens convicted of offenses punishable by less than one year” (ICE, 2014). Meaning, almost a third of those deported were sent back based on crimes as minute as possessing marijuana. If the stated intent for S-Comms is defined as “a simple and common sense way to carry out ICE’s enforcement priorities,” as it is on ICE’s website, then its intent was not met, as separating thousands of individuals from their families for low-level charges is grossly nonsensical (ICE, 2019). Be that as it may, its unspoken intent of riding the U.S. of anyone deemed unfit for citizenship, based largely on race, gender, and class, was completed with flying colors.

Bringing it from a large theoretical umbrella down to the micro, individualistic, level and back out again – as Mills prompts social scientists to do – it is crucial to remember the human behind these hot-topic conversations. When the fabric of a nation began with certain people deliberately left out, those delineations do not disappear overnight. Immigrants, documented or not, living in the U.S. today face discrimination in the workforce, healthcare, law enforcement, and nearly every other institution as well. While immigration policy is debated around oak tables clad with white men, struggling mothers, fathers, and children hide in their insecure communities, hoping to live a life all at once impactful and under the radar. Put differently, since the careful crafting of the Naturalization Act to Secure Communities, the very notion that there exists a normal, American neutral and everything else must be integrated into such has pervaded every corner of this stolen land. As historians, politicians, and humans living within these borders look back on these two policies, it would bode well with America’s future for them to rethink how policy places worth on people based on unavoidable characteristics. For if not, the overcriminalized, forever outsiders are destined to live through different iterations of the same exclusion, with no outcome equipped with equity.

In closing, the trajectory of defining human worth based on papers and status led this nation from 1790 to 2008 and continues on the same route to the very seconds of writing these words. By taking biography and history into consideration, the above words, sentences, and paragraphs argued that the Naturalization Act and Secure Communities simultaneously defined and deepened stereotypical racist, sexist, and classist ideals of citizenship across temporal and geographic boundaries. In doing such, they exist on similar planes of policy, while veering differently in matters of intention and intensity. As the system of immigration policy and reform ebbs and flows over centuries, some things stay the same: the U.S. wants your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, so long as they are not tired, poor, huddled, or non-white.


Gutiérrez, David. “Protecting America’s Borders and the Undocumented Immigrant Dilemma.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2014, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199766031.013.008.

ICE. Secure Communities Monthly Statistics through August 31, 2014. 2014, www.ice.gov/doclib/foia/sc-stats/nationwide_interop_stats-fy2014-to-date.pdf.

Mills, Charles Wright. The Sociological Imagination. Grove Press, 1961.

Pew Research Center, November 27, 2018, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Total Dips to Lowest Level in a Decade”

“Secure Communities.” ICE, 2019, www.ice.gov/secure-communities.

“Secure Communities (‘S-Comm’).” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu, www.aclu.org/other/secure-communities-s-comm.

US Census Bureau. “Newsroom.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 3 Aug. 2018, www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/hispanic-heritage.html.

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