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Dual Citizenship

Last Updated: 2006

In federal systems such as the United States, the term “dual citizenship” can have several meanings. One is a citizen of one’s nation and then again a citizen of one’s constituent unit and again of one’s local place(s) of residence. One can also be a citizen of two, or even more, nations. Finally, one can be a citizen of an indigenous group such as Native American tribes. In many respects, then, many people are more accurately said to occupy “multiple” citizenships.

In the United States, the original Constitution (1787) established a dual national-state citizenship in several of its provisions. A national citizenship, for instance, was recognized in the requirements that eligibility for election to the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate depended in part on having been a “citizen of the United States” for a specific period of years (Article I, Sections 2 and 3) and that the president must be a “natural born citizen” of the United States (Article II, Section 1). Likewise, a state citizenship is codified in Article IV, Section 2: “The citizens of each state shall be entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states”; and in the extension of federal court jurisdiction to disputes between “citizens of different states” (Article III, Section 2).

Although the framers of the Constitution formalized the existence of two distinct citizenships, they did so without clearly defining the relative parameters of each or the relationship between them. As with most policy areas prior to the Civil War (1861–65), citizenship policy was made in accordance with a dual federalist model. Each level of government made policy to apply within its particular jurisdiction. Thus, the national government codified regulations for national citizenship in the Naturalization Act of 1790, while the states were free to establish rules for citizenship within their respective borders. Interestingly, states were largely responsible for implementing the 1790 Act, and there were variations of definitions, rights, and obligations. For the most part, however, the courts of each state upheld the rights of national citizenship conferred by the others.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to the Constitution specifically defined national and state citizenship and seemingly removed any contradiction between the two. The Amendment declares that “[a]ll 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.” It further declares that individual states may not deprive U.S. citizens of the “privileges and immunities” stemming from that citizenship or deprive their own citizens of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Additionally, each state must afford all of its citizens the “equal protection of the laws.” The intent and long-term effect of the Fourteenth Amendment was to establish in law and in practice that national citizenship takes primacy over state citizenship and that state citizenship must conform to certain national standards.

As with so many policy areas in American intergovernmental relations, citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment is the product of numerous political and legal struggles. Although the constitutional rule stated a comity between national and state (and local) citizenship, the statutes and practices putting it into effect differed widely among the states and were a persistent source of national conflict. Many states developed laws that created, in fact, two classes of citizenship. The right to vote, a sine qua non of citizenship, was guaranteed without regard to race by the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), but black citizens in particular were routinely prevented from exercising the franchise in their respective states by the “Jim Crow” laws that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Women were not guaranteed the vote until 1920 by the Nineteenth Amendment. For Native Americans, the rights of citizenship conferred by the Indian Citizenship Act (1924) did not include the right to vote in many state elections until after World War II. The “separate but equal” doctrine articulated by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) meant that black citizens and citizens from other categories could exercise their rights “equally,” but separately, from whites. Many of these discrepancies were corrected by the Supreme Court in decisions on equal protection (Brown v. Board of Education 1954) and voting rights (Baker v. Carr 1962) and by the Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite this de jure and de facto primacy of national citizenship, each state retains wide discretion in the distribution of citizen rights and obligations within its borders. For instance, each state’s constitution can grant its citizens as many civil rights and liberties as it wishes, as long as they are no less than those conferred by the national government. States can determine for themselves what legal remedies its citizens shall have, what legal relationships it will endorse (e.g., marriage), and what benefits they are entitled to receive. States can even endorse substate citizenships in the local governments they charter, and allow the citizens of those smaller communities to determine some of these questions for themselves. But through all of this, each citizen must be treated in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment’s general requirements and the congressional acts that implement them.

When “dual citizenship” refers not to the federal relationship but rather to American citizens who hold citizenship in other countries, the issues are quite different. All persons born on U.S. soil are American citizens. Such “jus soli” (of the soil) citizenship raises the possibility that non-Americans will journey to the United States to bear their children on U.S. soil without intending to stay. Likewise, all persons born to U.S. citizens when not on U.S. soil are automatically U.S. citizens. This “jus sanguinis” (of the blood) citizenship can produce citizens who have not and never will set foot on U.S. soil. Although there have been several attempts by Congress and by individual states to place limitations on citizenship acquired through jus soli, the Supreme Court continues to uphold its 1893 decision (United States v. Wong Kim Ark) prohibiting all such limitations. Congress has placed residency requirements on the parents of jus sanguinis children. Naturalized American citizens are required to renounce allegiance to their former national citizenship. This is difficult to implement, as witnessed by the many dual citizens who regularly vote in American and in foreign national elections. Underlying such regulations is the assumption that a decision to join the American polity through the naturalization process is tantamount to consent to the American ideology, a consent that is noticeably absent in the jus soli and jus sanguinis means of acquiring American citizenship.

SEE ALSO: Brown v. Board of EducationCitizenshipPlessy v. Ferguson


Derek Heater, What Is Citizenship? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 1999); Vicki C. Jackson, “Citizenship and Federalism,” in Citizenship Today: Global Perspectives and Practices, ed. T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Douglas Klusmeyer, (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [Brookings Institution Press], 2001); David Jacobson, Rights across Borders: Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and Peter H. Shuck, Citizens, Strangers, and In-betweens: Essays on Immigration and Citizenship (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).