SUPPORTING QUESTION: “Who is allowed to benefit from citizenship?

Overview Narrative

Baghat Singh Thind emigrated from the state of Punjab, India to the United States in 1913 to study, ultimately earning a doctorate degree. Thind supported himself by working in a lumber mill in Oregon. The United States Army recruited Thind in 1918 to serve the United States in World War One (WWI). Following his service in the Army Thind applied for and was granted naturalized United States citizenship. However, in 1923, Thind was notified that his citizenship, along with other Indian Asians and Southeast Asians was being retroactively denied because they did not meet the racial requirements set forth for naturalized citizenship. Thind appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the earlier Court decision denying him citizenship as  “not a free white person or of African nativity or of African descent….” as stated in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Thind did not give up his hopes of being a citizen and continued to work toward obtaining naturalized citizenship. Living in New York state in 1935, Thind highlighted his status as a World War One veteran to petition for citizenship through the Nye-Lea Act. The Act granted United States citizenship to some veterans of the War, without regard to race. His petition was granted and he regained his naturalized citizen status with a ruling that he met the criteria set forth in the Nye-Lea Act.

Students should be scaffolded in their understanding of the distinction between the role of the Judicial Branch that ruled to rescind Indian Asians’ citizenship and the Legislative Branch that approved citizenship for Thind and – though limited – other veterans. Students will consider the perspectives that guided decisions about who benefits from citizenship.

Goal: The goal of this case study is to introduce students to the idea of race as a social construct that was a condition for U.S. citizenship during this era. Bhagat Singh Thind was culturally identified as Aryan and caucasian, both words used in the United States and Western Europe to describe people with white skin tones. The United States Supreme Court ruled that Thind did not meet the racial definition of eligibility for citizenship as “not a free white person or of African nativity or of African descent….” This led to his naturalized citizenship being denied retroactively.  Students will examine primary sources that portray various perspectives and will consider the compelling question, “Who is allowed to benefit from citizenship?” 

Thind is in the top row, towards the middle. He has a beard and is wearing a Turban.


The Supreme Court upheld that Bhagat Singh Thind’s identity as an Indian disqualified him from becoming a naturalized citizen. Importantly, nearly 50 others lost their citizenship at the same time as he. Thind did gain citizenship as a veteran of World War One, regardless of his race.

Primary Historical Documents:

  • The Nye-Lea Act – though limited in scope – granted citizenship to Thind as a veteran of WWI. This act did not provide universal citizenship for Indians and Southeast Asians, but for a small group of which Thind belonged, as a gesture for military service:
    • Nye-Lea Act of 1935(Chapter 290.) An Act to authorize the naturalization of certain resident alien World War veterans.Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That notwithstanding the racial limitations contained with section 2169 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, as amended  (U.S.C. title 8, sec. 359), and within section 14 of the Act of May 6, 1882, as amended (U.S.C., title 8, sec. 363), any alien veteran of the World War heretofore ineligible to citizenship because not a free white person or of African nativity or of African descent may be naturalized under this Act if he-
      1. Entered the service of the armed forces of the United States prior to november 11m 1919;
      2. Actually rendered service with the armed forces of the United states between April 6, 1917, and November 11, 1918;
      3. Received an honorable discharge  from such service for any reason other than his alienage;
      4. Resumed his previous permanent residence in the United States or any Territory thereof;   and
      5. Has maintained a permanent residence continuously since the date of discharge and is now a permanent resident of the United States or any Territory thereof; upon compliance with all the requirements of the naturalization laws, except –
      6. No certificate of arrival and no declaration of intention shall be required;
      7. No additional residence shall be required before the filing of petition for certificate of citizenship; and

      Sec. 2. Certificates of citizenship heretofore issued and heretofore granted by any court having naturalization jurisdiction under the provisions of the Act of May 9, 1918, or of the Act of July 19, 1919, to any alien veteran who is eligible to be naturalized under the provisions of section 1 of this Act, and orders or judgements authorizing such certificates are hereby declared to be valid for all purposes insofar as the race of the veteran is concerned. Such certificates may be stamped, declaring their validity under this Act, by the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization upon submission of satisfactory proof to establish identity.

      Certificates declared valid under the foregoing paragraph, which have been lost, mutilated, destroyed, or surrendered to any official of the United States may be replaced by a new certificate bearing date of original certificate upon compliance with the provisions of section 32 (a) of the Act of June 29, 1906, as amended.

      Sec. 3. On applications filed for any benefits under this Act, the requirement of fees for naturalization documents is hereby waived. 

      Approved, June 24, 1935.


      Students will explore how perspectives may be based on the real or perceived identities of people. Students will examine how world events impact perceptions about people and groups. 

      Activities Based on the Inquiry: “How did the shifting perspective of Bhagat Singh Thind from non-white to veteran impact his citizenship?”

      Activity 1:

      Students will read sections of the Supreme Court decision that disenfranchised Bhagat Singh Thind. How did Thind’s race impact his application for citizenship?

      Students consider the impact of this decision on racial identity for immigrants and citizens. Students will take part in the Thinking Routine Sticking Points, discussing the perspectives of Thind viewed by the Judicial Branch as an Indian and foreigner, and Thind viewed by the Legislative Branch as a U.S. patriot and veteran.

      Activity 2:

      Students will consider how shifting the perception of Thind as a veteran achieved Thind’s goal of citizenship. Students will review the Nye-Lea Act, the legislation passed by Congress to provide citizenship to specific veterans of color who were in the armed forces during World War I. 

      Students will study the list of characteristics identified in the Act qualifying men to gain citizenship if they meet the qualifications listed as (a) through (g). Students will work in four or more  groups using  The 4 C’s system of inquiry to dig deeper into the text. Teachers may employ a variety of groups and strategies to encourage students to engage in discussion and reflection including a jigsaw or four corners activities.

      To complete the lesson, students will reflect on why this case study is important to them, their community, and the world by taking part in The 3 Y’s thinking routine.

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