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.
For more information, the Naturalization Records research topic page will assist in your research on naturalization.