The History of Naturalization Requirements in the U.S.

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Naturalization is the process of gaining United States citizenship. Becoming an American citizen is the ultimate goal for many immigrants, but very few people are aware that the requirements for naturalization have been over 200 years in the making.

Legislative History of Naturalization

Before applying for naturalization, most immigrants must have spent 5 years as a permanent resident in the United States. How did we come up with the "5-year rule"? The answer is found in the legislative history of immigration to the U.S.

Naturalization requirements are set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the basic body of immigration law. Before the INA was created in 1952, a variety of statutes governed immigration law. Let's take a look at the major changes to naturalization requirements.

  • Before the Act of March 26, 1790, naturalization was under the control of the individual states. This first federal activity established a uniform rule for naturalization by setting the residence requirement at 2 years.
  • The Act of January 29, 1795, repealed the 1790 act and raised the residency requirement to 5 years. It also required, for the first time, a declaration of intention to seek citizenship at least 3 years before naturalization.
  • Along came the Naturalization Act of June 18, 1798 - a time when political tensions were running high and there was an increased desire to guard the nation. The residence requirement for naturalization was raised from 5 years to 14 years.
  • Four years later, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of April 14, 1802, which reduced the residence period for naturalization from 14 years back to 5 years.
  • The Act of May 26, 1824, made it easier for the naturalization of certain aliens who had entered the U.S. as minors, by setting a 2-year instead of a 3-year interval between the declaration of intention and admission to citizenship.
  • The Act of May 11, 1922, was an extension of a 1921 Act and included an amendment that changed the residency requirement in a Western Hemisphere country from 1 year to the current requirement of 5 years.
  • Noncitizens who had served honorably in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam conflict or in other periods of military hostilities were recognized in the Act of October 24, 1968. This act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, providing an expedited naturalization process for these military members.
  • The 2-year continuous U.S. residence requirement was done away with in the Act of October 5, 1978.
  • A major overhaul of immigration law occurred with the Immigration Act of November 29, 1990. In it, state residency requirements were reduced to the current requirement of 3 months.

Naturalization Requirements Today

Today's general naturalization requirements state that you must have 5 years as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. prior to filing, with no single absence from the U.S. of more than 1 year. In addition, you must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the previous 5 years and resided within a state or district for at least 3 months.

It is important to note that there are exceptions to the 5-year rule for certain people. These include: spouses of U.S. citizens; employees of the U.S. Government (including the U.S. Armed Forces); American research institutes recognized by the Attorney General; recognized U.S. religious organizations; U.S. research institutions; an American firm engaged in the development of foreign trade and commerce of the U.S.; and certain public international organizations involving the U.S.

USCIS has special help available for naturalization candidates with disabilities and the government makes some exceptions on requirements for elderly people.

Source: USCIS

Edited by Dan Moffett

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McFadyen, Jennifer. "The History of Naturalization Requirements in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McFadyen, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). The History of Naturalization Requirements in the U.S. Retrieved from McFadyen, Jennifer. "The History of Naturalization Requirements in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).