“One of the grievances behind the Declaration of Independence itself centered on immigration. King George III, the Declaration charged, had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Volokh Conspiracy contributor Ilya Somin has noted this complaint “was aimed at a series of royal orders” that, among other things, “forbade the colonies from naturalizing aliens” and passing laws to promote migration. The regulations directly contributed to “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” the Declaration explained.
No wonder—in the colonial days, immigration was both a boon to the young America and a headache for the distant Britain. In 1700, the British Parliament “limited the colonies’ ability to grant naturalization and other group rights because it believed that colonial naturalization policies weakened English citizens’ trading positions,” according to a 2021 Cato Institute paper. After a period of liberalization, Britain cracked down on certain colonial settlement and naturalization authorities. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about 2.2 million people were living in the colonies—”much of that growth fueled by the 346,000 European immigrants and their descendants,” the Cato paper noted.
The Founding Fathers turned to questions of citizenship and naturalization soon after the Revolution was won. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates worried that overly harsh barriers to citizenship could prevent deserving immigrants from coming to the nation. Gouverneur Morris had proposed an amendment that would require someone to have been a citizen for 14 years before being able to serve as a senator.
It sparked a vigorous debate: James Madison said he “could never agree” to the amendment since it would “give a tincture of illiberality to the Constitution” and “discourage the most desirable class of people from emigrating to the U.S.” James Wilson, himself a nonnative, lamented that he might be “incapacitated from holding a place under the very Constitution which he had shared in the trust of making.” The delegates eventually adopted a nine-year minimum as their standard.”