The United States has passed legislation several times to require noncitizen residents, or “aliens,” to register with the government. This was usually during times of war, including the War of 1812, Civil War, and World Wars I and II. While the informational requirements have changed over time, applications consistently asked for name, place of residence, age, country of origin, and date and place of arrival.
The Alien Registration Act of 1940, also known as the Smith Act, required all aliens to be registered and fingerprinted. Between Aug. 1, 1940, and March 31, 1944, more than 5.5 million noncitizen residents were registered. They completed the two-page Alien Registration Form (AR-2), which had 15 questions covering places of birth and citizenship, date and other details of first and last arrival in the United States. The form also gathered information about employment, organizational memberships and other activities within the past five years, relatives living in the United States, arrests and convictions, and more. Chances are, the answers will point you to other documentary evidence.
The applicant (or if the person was younger than 14, the parent or guardian) signed an affidavit at the bottom of the form. He provided a print of the right index finger and was photographed for the registration documents. The registering official signed as a witness. Immigration and Naturalization Service field offices received the forms on behalf of the US Department of Justice, assigned each applicant an alien registration number (called an A number), and sent him an alien registration receipt card (AR-3) and certificate of identification, shown here.
You can order a relative’s AR-2, as well as several other types of citizenship records, through the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Genealogy Program. Remember, only immigrants who hadn’t naturalized as of Aug. 1, 1940, would’ve completed form AR-2 and received a receipt card and identification document.
Deciphering an Alien Registration Form
1. This is the A number assigned to the applicant.
2. The section requesting other names the person has used is particularly helpful for learning maiden names, names used in the “old country” and other names a person might have used in records.
3. Arrival information, which includes the date of most recent arrival, can help you track down passenger lists and determine whether the person traveled abroad. Keep in mind the applicant’s memory of these details may have been faulty.
4. On the back of the form, notes about organizations or societies the applicant participated in can send you to records such as member lists and newsletters. Also try adding an organization’s name to your newspaper searches for the person.
5. This area will tell you if the person had filed for citizenship but not yet completed the process, and can help you locate naturalization records.
A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2015 Family Tree Magazine.