Background History of the United States Naturalization Process

By Eilleen Bolger

Editor’s Note: The following information is courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Regional National Archives and Records Administration.  Eilleen Bolger is Regional Archives Director.

The first naturalization act, passed by Congress on March 26, 1790 (1 Stat. 103), provided that any free, white, adult alien, male or female, who had resided within the limits and jurisdiction of the United States for a period of 2 years was eligible for citizenship. Under the act, any individual who desired to become a citizen was to apply to “any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least.” Citizenship was granted to those who proved to the court’s satisfaction that they were of good moral character and who took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Under the system established by the act, aliens could be naturalized not only in Federal courts, but also in State and local courts, and the children of successful applicants, if under 21 years of age, automatically became citizens.

The act of January 29, 1795 (1 Stat. 414) increased the period of residence required for citizenship from 2 to 5 years. It also required applicants to declare publicly their intention to become citizens of the United States and to renounce any allegiance to a foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty 3 years before admission as citizens. Immigrants who had “borne any hereditary title, or been of the order of nobility” were also required to renounce that status. These actions could be taken before the supreme, superior, district, or circuit court of any State or Territory, or before a Federal circuit or district court of the United States.

On April 14, 1802, Congress passed an act (2 Stat. 153) that directed the clerk of the court to record the entry of all aliens into the United States. The clerk collected information including the applicant’s name, birthplace, age, nation of allegiance, country of emigration, and place of intended settlement, and granted each applicant a certificate that could be exhibited to the court as evidence of time of arrival in the United States.

Certain doubts had arisen as to whether State and local courts were included within the description of U.S. district or circuit courts. The act of 1802 reaffirmed that every State and Territorial court was considered a district court within the meaning of the laws pertaining to naturalization, and that any persons naturalized in such courts were accorded the same rights and privileges as if they had been naturalized in a district or circuit court of the United States.

The act of 1802 was the last major piece of naturalization legislation during the 19th century. A number of minor revisions were introduced, but these merely altered or clarified details of evidence and certification without changing the basic nature of the admission procedure. The most important of these revisions occurred in 1855, when citizenship was automatically granted to alien wives of U.S. citizens (10 Stat. 604), and in 1870, when the naturalization process was opened to persons of African descent (16 Stat. 256).

On June 27, 1906, Congress passed an act (34 Stat. 596) that expanded the existing Immigration Bureau to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and put it in charge of “all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens.” Although the new Bureau was part of the Department of Labor and Commerce initially, and part of the Department of Labor from 1913 to 1940, most of its operations were directed by the Department of Justice, and, in 1940, the Bureau was made part of the Justice Department. Under the act of 1906, every petition for naturalization became a case for examination by Bureau officials.

This act also established the basic procedure for naturalization during the period 1906-52. The procedure began with the filing of a declaration of intention, which recorded the applicant’s oath to the clerk of the court that it was his or her bona fide intention to become a citizen of the United States, to reside permanently therein, and to renounce all allegiances to other nations. Within a period of 2 to 7 years after filing the declaration, the applicant could petition the court for citizenship, presenting at this time the affidavits of two witnesses with personal knowledge of the applicant, stating that the applicant had resided in the United States for at least 5 years and possessed a good moral character. The petition then became the subject of an investigation and hearing before a judge. Officials of the Bureau conducted preliminary examinations and submitted findings and recommendations to the court. The hearing before a judge was the last step in the procedure, provided the judge found the findings and recommendation of naturalization officials favorable and satisfactory. If so, the applicant would take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and laws and renounce all foreign allegiances, and the judge would issue an order of admission to citizenship and grant the applicant a certificate of citizenship. However, a judge could also order a continuance of the investigation or deny the petition, listing the reasons for the denial. A major change in this procedure occurred in 1952, when the filing of the declaration of intention was eliminated.

On May 9, 1918, Congress passed an act (40 Stat. 542) stating that any alien who had been a member of the Armed Forces for 3 or more years could file a petition for naturalization without proof of the 5-year residency requirement, and that any applicant who had been in the service during World War I was exempt from the requirement to file a declaration of intention. This act consolidated the previous statutes of July 17, 1862 (12 Stat. 597), which allowed waiver of the filing of a declaration if the applicant had a favorable discharge from the Army, and of July 24, 1894 (28 Stat. 124), which extended this provision to applicants discharged from the Navy or the Marines.

On September 22, 1922, Congress enacted a law (42 Stat. 1021) that changed the naturalization procedure for married women. Before that date, women who were married to a U.S. citizen or naturalized citizen automatically became U.S. citizens by reason of the marriage. The new law required that any woman married after the date of enactment who desired to become a citizen must meet the requirements of the naturalization laws. No declaration of intention was needed, however, and the period of required residence was reduced from 5 years to 1 year.

Source: Rocky Mountain Regional National Archives and Records Administration

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Bolger, E. (2013). Background history of the United States naturalization process. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=8694.

 

8 Responses to Naturalization Process in U.S.: Early History

  1. Noelle Sickels says:

    Am I correct in assuming that in 1934, an alien man married to a U. S. citizen did not gain automatic citizenship by that marriage, but had to apply, following all the rules?

  2. M. Joanne Nichols says:

    I am quite surprised that to become an American citizen, my mother’s Italian citizenship was renounced. Everyone in my family thought that they were citizens by birth in Italy and citizens by naturalization of the U.S. That sure throws a wrench into our getting Italian citizenship. I hope that the Italian Consulate will be helpful.

  3. Jully Davis says:

    Under what circumstances would a U.S born women in the early 1920’s have to become naturalized citizen? Her husband was Russian and also became a naturalized citizen.

  4. L.Sweeney says:

    How different would the date of a Petition for Naturalization be from the date on the Certificate of Naturalization?

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