From the early days of the republic, U.S. immigration and nationality laws required that an immigrant be “white” to become a U.S. citizen. After the Civil War, the law was liberalized somewhat to also allow persons of African descent to become citizens. Immigrants who were neither black nor white—including immigrants from Asia—were not eligible to naturalize until 1952 when Congress eliminated the racial prerequisites for U.S. citizenship.

Given that persons of Mexican ancestry have long been treated as nonwhite in American social life, one might guess that immigrants from Mexico during the 1790–1952 period would have been classified as nonwhite and deemed ineligible for citizenship. U.S. immigration officers, however, generally did not invoke the whiteness requirement to bar Mexican immigrants from becoming citizens. The standard reason offered for that practice is that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, guaranteed the eligibility of Mexican citizens...

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