Origins of the Federal Naturalization Service

Historic photo of people sitting at desks in a large room.

At the beginning of the 20th century, federal attention next turned to standardizing naturalization procedures nationwide. Congress previously delegated its constitutional authority to establish “an uniform Rule of Naturalization” to the judiciary for over a century. Under the decentralized system established by the Naturalization Act of 1802, "any court of record" – Federal, state, county, or municipal – could naturalize a new American citizen. In 1905, a commission charged with investigating naturalization practice reported an alarming lack of uniformity among the nation's more than 5,000 naturalization courts. Individual courts exercised naturalization authority without central supervision and with little guidance from Congress concerning the proper interpretation of its naturalization laws. Each court determined its own naturalization requirements, set its own fees, followed its own naturalization procedures, and issued its own naturalization certificate. This absence of uniformity made confirming a person’s citizenship status very difficult, resulting in widespread naturalization fraud. The naturalization of large groups of aliens before elections caused particular concern.

Standardizing Naturalization Nationwide
Congress enacted the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 to restore dignity and uniformity to the naturalization process. The 1906 law framed the fundamental rules that governed naturalization for most of the 20th century. That legislation also created the Federal Naturalization Service to oversee the nation’s naturalization courts. Congress placed this new agency in the Bureau of Immigration, expanding it into the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.

To normalize naturalization procedures, the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 required standard naturalization forms and encouraged state and local courts to give up their naturalization jurisdiction to federal courts. To prevent fraud, the new federal Naturalization Service collected copies of every naturalization record issued by every naturalization court across the country. Bureau officials also checked immigration records to verify each applicant’s legal admission into the United States.

The Independent Bureau of Naturalization
In 1913, the Naturalization Service began its two decades as an independent Bureau. That year saw the Department of Commerce and Labor divided into separate cabinet departments and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization split into the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization. The two bureaus coexisted separately within the new Department of Labor until reunited as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1933.

Encouraging Citizenship
A grassroots Americanization movement popular before World War I influenced developments in the Naturalization Bureau during the 1920s. The Bureau published its first Federal Textbook on Citizenship in 1918 to prepare naturalization applicants. Its Education for Citizenship program distributed the textbooks to public schools offering citizenship education classes and notified eligible aliens of available education opportunities.

Increasing Oversight of Naturalization Courts
Legislation of 1926 established the designated examiner system which assigned a Naturalization Examiner to each federal naturalization court. The Naturalization Examiners interviewed applicants, made recommendations to judges, and monitored proceedings. This direct interaction with the courts further advanced the fairness and uniformity of the naturalization process nationwide.

<< Previous - Federal Origins

Era of Mass Immigration - Next >>

Last Reviewed/Updated: