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Brief History of Naturalization

The Constitution of the United States gives Congress the power "to establish a uniform rule of naturalization" (Article I, Section 8), and Congress wasted little time in making such laws. The first federal naturalization law was passed in 1790, and then modified in 1795 and 1798. A new law in 1802 established the basic guidelines that were in effect until 1952.

The major requirements of this law were that an applicant reside five years in the United States and one year in the state, and have filed a Declaration of Intent at least three years before admission as a citizen. The applicant was to be of good moral character, take an oath of allegiance, renounce any title of nobility, and forswear allegiance to any reigning foreign sovereign.

Congress provided that any court could naturalize if it had:

  • common law jurisdiction
  • a seal
  • a clerk (or prothonotary)
  • kept a record of its proceedings

In practice, most states determined which of their courts could exercise this authority and commonly there was one court designated in a county to handle naturalization procedures. However, that court could be the circuit, district, common pleas, chancery, probate, superior or any other court so designated.

In areas with many immigrants, such as New York City, many different courts were allowed to naturalize. Of course, federal courts also met the broad criteria established by Congress, and they often performed this function.

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