How Immigrants Became Citizens
From Do People Grow on Family Trees? Pg. 125

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any state or sovereignty, and particularly to Russia or any independent state within the bounds of the former Russian empire, of whom I have heretofore been a subject; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

By signing that wordy pledge on June 9, 1920, Hymie Perlo became a citizen of the United States of America. Immigrants were not required to become American citizens, but most wanted to do so. Being a citizen meant you were a real American. You were entitled to vote in elections. You could have a say in who ran your town, your city, your state — even the country! For millions of immigrants who had no voice at all in the governing of the countries they had came from, being an American citizen was a privilege, and one they were eager to attain.

Anyone born in the United States or born to parents who are American citizens is automatically a U.S. citizen. All others must apply to be accepted for citizenship. That process is called “naturalization.”

In order to become a naturalized citizen, immigrants must formally apply to do so, must learn to speak English, and must become familiar with American government and history. The procedure has changed over the years, but those standards have applied.

In the early 1900s, applying for citizenship was a three-step process. No sooner than three years after being legally admitted to the United States, the immigrant had to go to a federal courthouse and file a document called a “Declaration of Intention,” which was sometimes called “First Papers.” On this form, applicants usually gave their home addresses and information about where and when they were born, and when and how they arrived in the United States.

A year or more later, immigrants filed a second application, the “Petition for Naturalization,” which was sometimes referred to as “Second Papers” or “Final Papers.” On this document, immigrants generally repeated the information on the first papers, and may have added the name of a husband or wife and children.

Shortly thereafter, if the application was accepted (there was an investigation to ensure that there was no good reason to deny the request) the immigrant received a “Certificate of Naturalization.” It was this document that the immigrant received with great pride. It meant that the immigrant was now a full-fledged U.S. citizen. Many immigrants framed or in some other way displayed their citizenship certificate.

While the certificate was the most important piece of paper as far as the immigrant was concerned, it is the Declaration and Petition that are of the most use and interest to genealogists.


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society