views updated Jun 08 2018



Naturalization is the means by which a person of foreign birth is made a full citizen. Naturalization is a process always complicated by race, gender and sexuality, religion, ethnicity, class, and the structural and political choices societies and their members make with regard to assimilation, acculturation, and boundary making.

Neither jus soli (citizenship by birth in a particular place) nor jus sanquinis (citizenship by descent) encompass purposeful choice-driven naturalization by an individual. The seemingly sharp demarcation between natural events and naturalization is actually fuzzy as official procedures for denoting citizenship can divest membership from those with a natal/descent claim, and invest it in those most recent arrivals deemed most worthy of citizenship status. Several historical and contemporary examples bear this out.

In the United States, the process of naturalization was explicitly set out in the 1790 Naturalization Act, and the caveats of gender, class, and race were made more or less explicit. For example, naturalization was limited to those defined as free white person[s]. One could claim natural citizenship if one was born to U.S. citizens outside the geographic limits of the nation, Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States (Takaki 1993, p. 80).

In the United States, the caveats of race and ethnicity with regard to naturalization were complicated by various combinations of birth, descent, and residence. Members of indigenous groups were not covered by the Naturalization Acts, as they were not whitehowever, taking on the habits of white men and leaving the reservation could suffice to entitle an Indian to citizenship (Cohen 1971, p. 24). Although African Americans were quite purposefully naturalized in practical terms by the Fourteenth Amendment, they had up to that point been systematically denied both jus soli and jus sanquinis, and this state of affairs would continue in both cultural understanding and law to varying degrees at least through the 1960s.

For non-white voluntary immigrants and their descendants, the lines between race, ethnicity, birth, residence, and naturalization have been murky and addressed through a variety of Supreme Court decisions on a piecemeal basis, most often on the impetus of these nascent citizens themselves, with widely varying outcomes (U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923; U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898; and In re Halladjian, 1909). The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act dismantled the United States older racial/ethnic/nationality-based quota system, but the preference for family members of current U.S. citizens preserved an extant preference for those groups already in the country (An Act to Amend the Immigration and Naturalization Act, 1965). However, the migration patterns had by that time drastically shifted from Europe, and new migrant groups could then put their citizenship to work for their family ties.

Gendered understandings of naturalization have also been quite prominent. Until 1922 in the United States, only women who married noncitizens lost their citizenship, and the equalization of citizenship (vis-à-vis nationality, not specific areas of rights) was not completed until the 1930s (Freeman 1989). According to several scholarly works documenting naturalization procedures in the late twentieth century, such gendered naturalization practices continue to be widespread (Cook 1994; Beyani 1994; Al Nuaimi 2001).

In the United States, class was far more explicit in the discussion leading up to the implementation of the 1790 Act than in its final product; read, for example, the discussion of those likely to become chargeable, and the common class of vagrants [and] paupers, and those who worried about the merchant class who would remain so long as will enable them to acquire a fortune, and then they will leave (Gales and Seatons History of Debates in Congress 1790, pp. 1148, 1152, 1156). Class is of course implicated when workers are invited in to fill economic vacancies, but explicitly not invited to take part in the process of immigrant-to-citizen (Walzer 1983). This is shown in early Chinese immigration to the United States, the Bracero Program for Mexican workers in the United States, and the guest worker system in several European nations (Walzer 1983).

Practices that incorporate jus sanquinus far beyond ones parents raise the question of just what counts as natural in terms of membership. In Ireland one may have preference in applying for citizenship if, for example, at least one grandparent was Irish-born (termed Citizenship by Application). Israels Law of Return extends the offer of naturalized citizenship to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel (as expressed in its Law of Return and Acquisition of Israeli Nationality). Although others eligible to naturalization must wait from two to five years, for Jews under the Law of Return the naturalization is instantaneous upon arrival (Acquisition). In 1970 this law was extended to include the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the unity of families where intermarriage had occurred. These sorts of practices highlight a perspective that understands all citizenship as a process of naturalization because the concept is a human one based upon stories of belonging. Denaturalization is the flip side of the process.


Acquisition of Israeli Nationality. 2001. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nationality.

Al Nuaimi, Wadha. 2001. This Is the Price We Pay: A Study of Divorce in the United Arab Emirates from Womens Perspectives. Masters thesis, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

Beyani, Chaloka. 1994. Toward a More Effective Guarantee of Womens Rights in the African Human Rights System. In Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, ed. Rebecca J. Cook. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Citizenship by ApplicationCitizenship by Descent. 2005. Embassy of Ireland.

Cohen, Felix S. 1971. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Cook, Rebecca J. 1994. State Accountability under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, ed. Rebecca J. Cook. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Freeman, Jo. 1989. The Legal Revolution. In Women: A Feminist Perspective, ed. Jo Freeman. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Gales and Seatons History of Debates in Congress (microfilm edition). 1790. Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton.

Law of Return 57101950. 1950. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Takaki, Ronald. 1993. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.

U.S. Circuit Court of Massachusetts. 1909. In re Halladjian. 174 F. 834; 1909 U.S. App. Lexis 5266.

U.S. Congress. 1790. Naturalization Act of 1790. 1 Stat 103104.

U.S. Congress. 1965. An Act to Amend the Immigration and Nationality Act. Public Law 89236. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1856. Dred Scott v. Sandford. 60 U.S. 393.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1898. U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark. 169 U.S. 649; 18 S. Ct. 456; 42 L. Ed. 890; 1898 U.S. Lexis 1515.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1923. U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind. 261 U.S. 204; 43 S. Ct. 338; 67 L. Ed. 616; 1923 U.S. Lexis 2544.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1971. Rogers v. Bellei. 401 U.S. 815; 91 S. Ct. 1060; 28 L. Ed. 2d 499; 1971 U.S. Lexis 61; 27 A.F.T.R.2d (RIA) 1006.

Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.

Sarah N. Gatson


views updated May 08 2018


NATURALIZATION. U.S. citizenship—a legal status making one a member of the political community—is acquired at birth or through naturalization. With few exceptions, those born on U.S. territory or abroad to American parents automatically acquire U.S. citizenship. Other foreign-born persons, called aliens in legal terminology, must "naturalize" to acquire the status and rights of native-born citizens.

Historically naturalization was considered critical in building America. In colonial America, only the British parliament could naturalize aliens and make them British subjects. Colonies established local naturalization procedures, but London banned these practices in 1773. The conflict over naturalization is evident in the Declaration of Independence, which charges that King George III "has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners." The Articles of Confederation (article 4) left naturalization to the states, but the U.S. Constitution (article 1, section 8, clause 4) gave this power to the federal legislative branch. The first Congress quickly exercised its authority, passing the first U.S. naturalization law on 26 March 1790.

Naturalization can be collective, an individual judicial process, or derivative. Collective naturalization grants citizenship to a group of people, usually after territorial acquisition. Residents of Louisiana, Florida, the Mexican territories, and Alaska received citizenship through treaties of incorporation, and Texans acquired citizenship through a joint resolution of Congress in 1845. American Indians received citizenship through statute (in 1924), as did people in Hawaii (1900), Puerto Rico (1917), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1927), and Guam (1950).

Individual judicial naturalization is perhaps most familiar, used by adult immigrants to become American citizens. From 1790 to 1802 a series of naturalization laws set the core regulations for the next century. Many provisions continue today, including a five-year residence requirement, the need to demonstrate "good moral character," and the obligation to swear an oath of allegiance. Congress gave the courts authority to administer and grant naturalization.

In 1905 a presidential commission investigated lack of standardization and abuses to the naturalization system. At the time, courts charged varying fees, had their own forms, and sometimes turned a blind eye to fraud. The Naturalization Act of 29 June 1906 established a new federal agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, to help administer citizenship and establish nationwide standards. The act also made oral English ability a requirement of citizenship.

Today, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 27 June 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act) and subsequent amendments governs naturalization. Under this act, applicants must demonstrate basic ability in written English. The Immigration Act of 29 November 1990 extended exceptions to the English requirement and assigned exclusive jurisdiction over naturalization to the attorney general.

Unlike many countries, the United States has had no religious requirements for naturalization since 1790. However, throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries significant racial, gender, and marital status restrictions existed. The 1790 act limited naturalization to "free white persons." Following the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, the Naturalization Act of 14 July 1870 expanded this to "persons of African nativity and African descent." Chinese were barred from naturalization under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 6 May 1882. Subsequent court decisions denied most individuals from Asia access to U.S. citizenship. Racial restrictions only began to disappear during World War II, first for Chinese (1943), then East Indians and Filipinos (1946), and finally for any group in 1952.

Finally, citizenship can also be derived from a close relation. Historically, married women derived citizenship from their husband and in some periods had no control over their status. Under the Act of 10 February 1855, a woman automatically became an American upon marrying a U.S. citizen or following the naturalization of her foreign husband. The 1907 Expatriation Act (2 March) extended this logic by taking away the citizenship of a U.S.-born or naturalized American woman if she married an alien. The 1922 Married Women's Act (or the Cable Act) finally severed the link between naturalization and marital status for most women. However, women who married foreign-born Asian men ineligible for naturalization did not retain independent citizenship until 1931.

Since 1790, children can derive citizenship from a parent when the parent naturalizes. The Child Citizen-ship Act of 2000 added a new provision making citizenship automatic for children adopted from foreign countries, provided at least one parent is American at the time of adoption.


Smith, Rogers M. Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Ueda, Reed. "Naturalization and Citizenship." In Immigration. Edited by Richard A. Easterlin et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982.

United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. Home page at


See alsoImmigration Restriction .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Naturalization is the process by which a citizen of one nation obtains citizenship in another country. In the early twenty-first century, the naturalization process was entirely within the control of the various nation-states comprising the international system. Each state determined for itself the requirements it would utilize to permit foreigners to join its citizenry. Consequently, there was considerable variation from country to country.

Under this system, each state must first determine the number of immigrants it will permit to enter its land, for each immigrant is a potential citizen. The laws establishing immigration quotas are based on a prior determination of the national interest, and that policy can change over time or with different political leaders. For example, throughout the nineteenth century the United States placed virtually no restrictions on immigration from Europe because the American leadership wanted to populate the country with people from those lands. Simultaneously, United States's policy excluded Asians (except for contract laborers) because Americans wanted to create a European-oriented society.

Because the United States is no longer an underpopulated country, American policy in the early 2000s imposed a numerical quota on yearly immigration, and within that quota priority was given to those individuals who possessed skills most useful to the American economy and to those who sought to be reunited with their families. Given these basic objectives, U.S. immigration policy no longer had a geographic emphasis; it was essentially available to anyone who met the stated criteria. Other countries maintain an open-door (unlimited) immigration policy for those individuals they wish to attract; that is how, for example, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania encourage the return of people who can trace their ancestry to those countries.

Naturalization occurs within the context of a country's immigration policy. Those nations that conceive of citizenship in ethnic terms have a virtually automatic naturalization process for immigrants who share their common group identity. Thus, countries such as Germany, Israel, and the Baltic States bestow citizenship on individuals who are perceived as returning to their native land. Nations that have aterritorial conception of citizenship bestow citizenship on those immigrants who can demonstrate allegiance to their new homeland and are likely to make a positive contribution to its welfare. These characteristics are usually shown by residence in the country for a period of time, knowledge of the nation's basic institutions and practices, and a personal history devoid of criminal activities. In the United States, for example, an individual must live in the country for five years, demonstrate an understanding of the constitution and the principles of American government, and show the absence of a criminal record.

Because naturalization entails the bestowal of citizenship on those who satisfy specified criteria, controversy can arise about either the meaning of those criteria or whether a particular individual has truly satisfied them. In Israel, for example, the perennial issue of "who is a Jew" revolves around different understandings of that ethnic and religious grouping. In the United States, the government periodically seeks to expatriate (i.e., denaturalize) individuals who are believed to have lied about their pasts.

Despite variations among countries, naturalization processes always have the same objective: Each nation seeks to have a citizenry with shared attachments and common loyalties.

See also: Citizenship; Immigration and Immigrants.


Aleinkopf, Thomas. Between Principles and Politics: The Direction of U.S. Citizenship Policy. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998.

DeSipio, Louis, and Rodolfo De la Garza. Making Americans, Remaking America: Immigration and Immigrant Policy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Martin Edelman


views updated May 17 2018


Naturalization was defined by the Supreme Court in Boyd v. Nebraska ex rel. Thayer (1892) as "the act of adopting a foreigner, and clothing him with the privileges of a native citizen." Congress, under Article I, section 8, of the Constitution, has complete discretion to determine what classes of aliens are eligible for naturalization; an individual may claim naturalization as a right only upon compliance with the terms that Congress imposes. Exercising this discretion in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, Congress denied eligibility to those persons who advocate the violent overthrow of the government and limited it to those who have resided in the United States for at least five years, are of "good moral character," and take an oath in open court to support and defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and to bear arms or perform noncombative service in behalf of the United States.

Any naturalized citizen who is proved to have taken the oath of citizenship with mental reservations or to have concealed acts or affiliations that, under the law, would disqualify him for naturalization, is subject, upon these facts being conclusively shown in a proper proceeding, to cancellation of his certificate of naturalization. While this action remedies a fraud on the naturalization court that the United States would otherwise be powerless to correct, it subjects a naturalized citizen to possible loss of citizenship from which native-born citizens are spared and thus arguably calls into question Justice william o. douglas's announcement in Schneider v. Rusk (1964) that "the rights of citizenship of the native-born and of the naturalized person are of the same dignity and are co-extensive."

Although naturalization normally is accomplished through individual application and official response on the basis of general congressional rules, naturalization can also be extended to members of a group, without consideration of their individual fitness. Such collective naturalization can be authorized by Congress, as in cases of naturalization of all residents of an annexed territory or of a territory made a state, or by a treaty.

Ralph A. Rossum


Gordon, Charles and Rosenfield, Harry N. 1984 Immigration Law and Procedure, Vol. 3, chaps. 14–18. New York: Matthew Bender.

Hertz, Michael T. 1976 Limits to the Naturalization Power. Georgetown Law Journal 64:1007–1045.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The process under federal law whereby a foreign-born person may be granted citizenship. In order to qualify for naturalization, an applicant must meet a number of statutory requirements, including those related to residency, literacy, and education, as well as an exhibition of "good moral character" and a demonstration of an attachment to constitutional principles upon which the United States is based.


Aliens; Citizens.

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