Naturalization is the legal act or process by which a non-citizen in a country may acquire citizenship or nationality of that country. It may be done by a statute, without any effort on the part of the individual, or it may involve an application and approval by legal authorities. The rules of naturalization vary from country to country and typically include a minimum legal residency requirement, and may specify other requirements such as knowledge of the national dominant language or culture, a promise to obey and uphold that country’s laws. An oath or pledge of allegiance is also sometimes required. Some countries also require that the person renounce any other citizenship that they currently hold, forbidding dual citizenship, but whether this renunciation actually causes loss of the person’s original citizenship, as seen by the host country and by the original country, will again depend on the laws of the countries involved.

Becoming a United States Citizen

n the United States of America, the Constitution gives Congress the power to prescribe a uniform rule of naturalization, which is administered by state courts. There was some confusion about which courts could naturalize; the final ruling was that it could be done by any “court of record having common-law jurisdiction and a clerk (prothonotary) and seal.”

The Constitution also mentions “natural born citizen“. The first naturalization Act (drafted by Thomas Jefferson) used the phrases “natural born” and “native born” interchangeably.

The Constitution does not mandate race-neutral naturalization, and the First Congress passed a naturalization act that limited eligibility for naturalization to “free white persons.” Shortly after the Civil War, Congress also extended racial eligibility for naturalization to “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent.” Racial eligibility for naturalization was limited to these racial categories until 1940, after which eligibility for naturalization was also extended to “descendants of races indigenous to the Western Hemisphere,” “Filipino persons or persons of Filipino descent,” “Chinese persons or persons of Chinese descent,” and “persons of races indigenous to India.” The racial eligibility provisions were removed from the naturalization act in 1952, but while they remained in place many federal and state courts as well as the United States Board of Immigration Appeals interpreted the phrase “free white person” in a variety of cases involving the contested naturalization applications of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Rim who some claimed were racially ineligible for naturalization.[18]

Naturalization is also mentioned in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court, in the case of Minor v. Happersett explained who the citizens of the United States were before its adoption, the Court said, Before the 14th Amendment, “the Constitution of the United States did not in terms prescribe who should be citizens [of the United States] or of the several states, yet there were necessarily such citizens without such provision. Additions might always be made to the citizenship of the United States in two ways: first, by birth, and second, by naturalization”. Before the U.S. Constitution was adopted, individual states set their own standards for citizenship; After adoption, all state citizens “became ipso facto a citizen” of the United States and all children born in the United States “of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens [of the United States]. These were natives or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners.”. The 14th Amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof shall be citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside”. The Minor v. Happersett Court went on to say, “Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first”. The Supreme Court later, in the case of Afroyim v. Rusk, interpreted this clause to imply that a naturalized citizen cannot be subsequently deprived of U.S. citizenship involuntarily.

The Naturalization Act of 1795 set the initial rules on naturalization: “free, White persons” who had been resident for five years or more. The Naturalization Act of 1798, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts, was passed by the Federalists and extended the residency requirement from five to fourteen years. It specifically targeted Irish and French immigrants who were involved in Democratic-Republican Party politics. It was repealed in 1802.

An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization, without having filed a declaration of intent, after only one year of residence in the United States. An 1894 law extended the same privilege to honorably discharged five-year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps. Over 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919, under an act of May 9, 1918. Laws enacted in 1919, 1926, 1940, and 1952 continued preferential treatment provisions for veterans.[19]

Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment meant that, in theory, all persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens regardless of race. Citizenship by birth in the United States, however, was not initially granted to Asians until 1898, when the Supreme Court, in the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark held that the Fourteenth Amendment did apply to Asians born in the United States to Alien parents who have a permanent domicile and residence in the United States.

The enabling legislation for the naturalization aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment was the Naturalization Act of 1870, which allowed naturalization of “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent”, but is silent about other races. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese workers and specifically barred them from naturalization. The Immigration Act of 1917, (Barred Zone Act) extended those restrictions to almost all Asians.

The 1922 Cable Act specified that women marrying aliens ineligible for naturalization lose their US citizenship. At the time, all Asians were ineligible for naturalization. The Immigration Act of 1924 barred entry of all those ineligible for naturalization, which again meant non-Filipino Asians.

Following the Spanish–American War in 1898, Philippine residents were classified as U.S. nationals, and the 1917 Jones–Shafroth Act granted U.S. citizenship to citizens of Puerto Rico. But the 1934 Tydings–McDuffie Act (or Philippine Independence Act) reclassified Filipinos as aliens, and set a quota of 50 immigrants per year, and otherwise applying the Immigration Act of 1924 to them. The quotas did not apply to Filipinos who served in the United States Navy, which actively recruited in the Philippines at that time.

Chinese persons were first permitted naturalization by the 1943 Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. India and the Philippines were allowed 100 annual immigrants under the 1946 Filipino Naturalization Act. The War Brides Act of 1945 permitted soldiers to bring back their foreign wives and established precedent in naturalization through marriage. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (better known as the McCarran–Walter Act) lifted racial restrictions, but kept the quotas in place. The Immigration Act of 1965 finally allowed Asians and all persons from all nations be given equal access to immigration and naturalization.

Illegal immigration became a major issue in the United States at the end of the 20th century. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, while tightening border controls, also provided the opportunity of naturalization for illegal aliens who had been in the country for at least four years. Today, lawful permanent resident aliens can apply for naturalization in the United States after five years, unless they continue to be married to a U.S. citizen, in which case they can apply after three years of permanent residency.[20]

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 streamlined the naturalization process for children adopted internationally. A child under age 18 who is adopted by at least one U.S. citizen parent, and is in the custody of the citizen parent(s), is now automatically naturalized once admitted to the United States as an immigrant or when legally adopted in the United States, depending on the visa under which the child was admitted to the United States.