The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been key to the protection of the civil rights of immigrants, gays and lesbians, and the disabled. The amendment provides that no state shall deny "any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which it has authority] the equal protection of the law." This is the Equal Protection Clause. Likewise, the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or prosperity "without due process of law." Due process means an individual, if charged with a crime, must have fair legal hearings. Many legal actions involving immigrants, gays and lesbians, and the disabled are brought under the Fourteenth Amendment. Resulting court decisions reflect the morals and always changing social standards of a diverse nation.
"Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Invitation on the Statute of Liberty in New York City.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), some fifty-five million immigrants have come to America from its birth to the
end of the twentieth century. Except for Native Americans, all people in the United States have immigrant ancestors, or are present-day immigrants. The United States has been shaped by immigrants and the inscription on the Statute of Liberty testifies to the country's commitment to immigration.
Aliens are foreign born individuals who have not become U.S. citizens through naturalization, the process by which a person becomes a U.S. citizen. Aliens are classified in several ways including non-immigrant and immigrant, and documented (legal alien) and undocumented (illegal alien). Non-immigrants do not intend to settle permanently in the United States. Examples are students, vacationers, and foreign government personnel. Persons granted immigrant status, on the other hand, intend to live and work in the United States and become U.S. citizens.
Immigrants are entitled to many of the same rights as those enjoyed by native-born U.S. citizens. Although they cannot vote or hold federal elective office until they become citizens, the Constitution and Bill of Rights generally apply. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendments guarantees "equal protection of the laws" to any person living in the United States, citizen or not. States have often passed laws and regulations that violate immigrants' rights and the Equal Protection Clause generally has protected immigrants from these laws.
Even undocumented or illegal aliens (those who have not entered the country legally), once on American soil have some rights under the Constitution. To enter the country illegally is a crime punishable by deportation (forced to leave the country). However, the U.S. Supreme Court, as early as 1903 in Yamataya v. Fisher has ruled repeatedly that illegal immigrants may have the right to a hearing that satisfies the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
All immigrants are subject to federal immigration law which serves as the nation's gate keeper: who enters, for how long, who may stay, and who may leave. The U.S. Congress has total authority over all immigration law. Although this authority has a long controversial history dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century, the authority was solidified in 1952 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). INA became the basic source of immigration law. The INA was amended many times as Congress' preferences evolved into a patchwork of regulations reflecting who was wanted and who was not.
Beginning in 1986 Congress passed major new legislation which followed two lines of thought: (1) the need to stop illegal immigration, and (2) the need to make laws more fair for legal immigrants. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 set up requirements aimed at controlling the entry of illegal immigrants. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 contained measures to prevent illegal immigration from increasing and to speed up deportation of those illegal immigrants caught. On the other hand the Immigration Act of 1990 dealt with establishing limits on the number of legal immigrants admitted each year and created ways to admit more immigrants from underrepresented countries.
Many U.S. Supreme Court cases have protected immigrants from discriminatory state and local...