Naturalization and Citizenship
Document Showcase is a regular feature that highlights a topic from State history using records from the New York State Archives. Each Showcase includes sample documents, an historical sketch, and links to educational activities for classroom use. Check out previous topics we have covered in our Document Showcase Archive.
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Naturalization is the act of granting to immigrants the full legal rights and benefits held by native-born United States citizens. Naturalization laws and regulations in the United States have changed over time because of new patterns of immigration, changing ideas of citizenship, diplomatic relations between the United States and other nations, and the need to standardize the process.
The Constitution gave Congress the power to "establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization." In the 1800s, naturalizations could be carried out by any court of record. The states controlled the civil and political rights of resident aliens, especially regarding real estate ownership. In 1825, any immigrant in New York who wanted to own land had to file a deposition stating their intention to permanently live in the United States. The deposition also required the immigrants to be naturalized as soon as possible.
Nineteenth century courts in the United States did not have a consistent way of naturalizing aliens. In New York, the courts required only one person to testify on the alien's behalf. The federal requirement was for two people to testify. In the 1880s, the federal government started the process to centralize control of immigration. This resulted in the creation of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906.
In the early twentieth century social reformers and policy makers began to fear that the newest immigrants were not prepared or motivated to take on the duties and privileges of American citizenship. A separate federal Bureau of Naturalization was formed to work with public schools and citizens' organizations to prepare immigrants for citizenship.
Throughout the twentieth century Congress and the federal courts have struggled with the question of which racial and ethnic groups would be granted American citizenship. Federal laws regulating the number of immigrants admitted to the United States, and the treatment of legal and illegal aliens, have changed repeatedly. Qualifications for becoming a citizen are still in place today and include the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 that states that citizenship cannot be denied based solely on race, gender, or marital status.
See our Document-Based Questions and extension activities related to naturalization and citizenship, and designed to meet New York State Education Standards.
Document 1: Alien deposition of Patrick Hyland, affirming his intention to permanently reside in the United States and to seek naturalization as soon as possible, 1825. (View transcript of Patrick Hyland's deposition)
Document 2: Naturalization papers of German immigrant Alexander Rudolph, filed in the New York State Court of Chancery, 1840.
Document 3: Immigrants on deck of steamer awaiting debarkation at Ellis Island, circa 1925.
Document 6: Cover of "Little New Citizen" playlet, designed to teach elementary school children the responsibilities and benefits of American citizenship, 1941.
For More Information
National Archives Northeast Regional Office, New York City
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation
Send questions or comments about the Document Showcase to the Public Programs Office of the State Archives by email at: ARCHEDU@mail.nysed.gov or phone (518) 474-6926.