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New citizens sign naturalization papers in judge's chambers, photograph by Bain News Service, n.d.

Prior to 1906, when Congress passed the Basic Naturalization Act, those who sought to become U.S. citizens followed procedures established by an array of federal, state, county, and municipal courts. There was no uniformity of requirements, nor any central location for naturalization records.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New citizens sign naturalization papers in judge's chambers, photograph by Bain News Service, n.d.

Defining the Path to Citizenship

With large numbers of immigrants arriving after 1875, Congress passed several restrictive immigration laws in the 1880s. In the early twentieth century, it then addressed issues of fraud and inconsistency in the naturalization process. Since 1802 Congress had defined naturalization and citizenship requirements by statute but delegated the administration of laws to the courts. In 1905 a commission found more than five thousand naturalization courts operating without central supervision. To institute standardized procedures, Congress passed the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 and created the Federal Naturalization Service.

The primary reason for the lax and loose administration of the naturalization laws has been . . . the large number of courts of different characters of jurisdiction throughout the United States.

Representative Robert Bonynge of Colorado, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, 1906