The Path to Citizenship

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

With some exceptions, your immigrant ancestors probably followed a two-step naturalization formula: declaration of intention (first papers) + petition for naturalization (second or final papers) = citizenship. As you’ll see from this synopsis, the genealogical details produced during the process can add up, especially for later arrivals.

First papers
In this document, an alien renounced his allegiance to his homeland and declared his intention to become a US citizen. The immigrant could make his declaration as soon as he stepped off the boat. Pre-1906 declarations usually contain the immigrant’s name, country of birth or allegiance (for example, an Ireland-born immigrant would’ve renounced allegiance to the British Crown), application date, and the applicant’s signature. Few of these early records give more than the country of origin or the date and port of arrival. Post-1906 declarations of intention also included the applicant’s name, age, occupation, personal description, birth date and place, citizenship, current address, last foreign address, vessel and port of embarkation, US port and date of arrival, date of application and signature.

Second papers
In the naturalization petition, an immigrant who’d filed his first papers and met residency requirements made a formal application for citizenship. Starting in 1906, second papers included the petitioner’s name, residence, occupation, birth date and place, citizenship and personal description; the date he emigrated; the arrival and departure ports; marital status (with wife’s name and date of birth, if married); names, dates and places of birth and residence of the applicant’s children; the date when US residence commenced; his length of residence in the state; name changes; and his signature. After 1929, the declaration and final certificate included photos.

Despite the requirement to do so, some courts didn’t make applicants file petitions for naturalization prior to 1903. The Justice Department created a special form that year, but not all courts used it. As a result, 19th-century records contain some or all of the following data: the applicant’s name, country of birth, date of application, signature, date and port of arrival, occupation, residence, age, birthplace and birth date.

The Naturalization Act of 1906 mandated a 90-day waiting period between filing the petition and the hearing when citizenship was granted or denied. No naturalization hearings occurred in the 30 days before a general election in the court’s jurisdiction. The new citizen received a certificate bearing the seal of the naturalizing court. Your family might’ve passed down this document-check with relatives.
Members of the military
Various laws have allowed members of the military or veterans to expedite the naturalization process. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization after one year of residence in the United States, without filing a declaration of intent. This privilege was extended to honorably discharged five-year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps in 1894. May 9, 1918, Congress passed a law to allow aliens who’d been in the Armed Forces for at least three years to file a petition for naturalization without proof of the five-year residency requirement, and that any alien who’d been in the service during World War I could skip the declaration of intention.
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