Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Rights of Permanent Residents and Foreign Nationals

Rights of Legal Status Immigrants in the United States

As implied by the name, a legal permanent resident has the right to permanently live in the United States and also has the right to work in the United States.  Permanent legal residents are protected under the laws of the United States and all local jurisdictions.  In addition, permanent legal residents are protected and maintain rights as given by the Constitution, including due process of law and equal protection under the law.  These legal rights emanate primarily from the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides guarantees for "any person."  See Yick Wo v Hopkins (1886)  However, distinctions between citizens and noncitizens are not unconstitutional prima facie.  See Graham v Richardson (1971) and Cabell v Chavez-Salido (1982).

A legal permanent resident can travel outside of the United States and has a right of return to the United States within a specified amount of time.  Unlike a citizen, a legal permanent resident cannot remain outside of the United States indefinitely; doing so would cause the abandonment of their residency.  

Legal permanent residents are eligible for some government benefits.  Once a legal permanent resident has resided in the United States for five years he or she becomes eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), full Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  Emergency Medicare is available for all legal permanent residents without the five year eligibility period, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Federally Funded Public Housing, as well as Social Security benefits, if all other requirements of each program are met. 

Legal permanent residents can be deported for cause as defined under immigration law.  

Rights of Foreign Nationals1

Here "foreign national" is used to distinguish a lawful permanent resident of the United States from a person present the United States legally without permanent residence status, as well those who are present in the United States unlawfully, but who reside in the United States permanently.

The Fourteenth Amendment, and through its extension by the Fifth Amendment, gives the right of equal protection under the laws of the United States' to all foreign nationals with who are present within the boundaries of the United States.  However, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Graham v Richardson (1971) that alienage is a "suspect" class, and therefore, any differences in treatment based on alienage must be strictly scrutinized and there must be a compelling state interest to justify the difference in treatment.  However, in subsequent case law, the requirement for strict scrutiny based upon a person's legal status has been modified and a lower standard of scrutiny has become acceptable, dependent upon the question at hand.  (For a complete discussion see section 9:1 in "Rights and Obligations of Non-Citizens," in Fragomen on Immigration Fundamentals.)  

Foreign nationals who have, or have had, physical presence in the United States can bring claims in U.S. courts, as allowed under subject matter or standing jurisdiction.  Foreign nationals who are not present in the United States can sue in U.S. Courts if the cause of action originates within the United States -- such as a contract or property.  

Foreign nationals do not have the right to vote, hold public office, or sit on juries.  However, a noncitizen can serve in the military of the United States, which can provide an expedited route to naturalization.  In addition, refugees, permanent residents, asylees, undocumented immigrants, and those who overstay their visa are required to register for Selective Service, if applicable.  Not doing so can make an individual ineligible for permanent residency status and naturalization, as well as potential deportation. 

With regard to public benefits and education, a foreign national who is a "qualified alien" is eligible to receive some public benefits and education.  A qualified alien is a foreign national who is a lawful permanent resident, an asylee, a refugee, or a foreign national who is paroled in the United States for at least one year, or is granted conditional entry.  A qualified alien is also any foreign national who has been battered or subjected to "extreme cruelty" by a spouse or parent, or the parent of a child who has been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty by a parent.  Cuban and Haitian immigrants are also qualified aliens.  All foreign nationals who are present in the United States have a right to receive emergency medical care, short term and in-kind emergency disaster aid, immunizations and testing and treatment for communicable diseases, and assistance within a community that is necessary for protection of life and safety. 

1For a complete overview of the rights of foreign nationals, see chapter 9: Rights and Obligations of Noncitizens in Daniel J. Montalvo, et al., Fragomen on Immigration Fundamentals: A Guide to Law and Practice (2016).

International Human Rights

All persons in the United States have international rights, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the United Nations.  

The United States has ratified three human rights treaties:

The United States has signed, but not ratified three additional treaties:

The United States has not signed three treaties: