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Timeline of Major U.S. Immigration & Citizenship Laws

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From the Naturalization Act of 1790 through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, a large number of laws placed restrictions on naturalization and immigration in and to the United States. A knowledge of the laws that regulated immigration and citizenship is important for understanding the conditions under which your ancestors may have been granted or lost their citizenship, or records which may have been created based on their alien or citizenship status.

Timeline of Major U.S. Immigration & Citizenship Laws

Naturalization Act of 1790 (26 March 1790):
The United States government established its first uniform naturalization rules, "An act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization," allowing an individual to apply for citizenship if they were a free white person (male or female), of "good moral character," and had lived in the United States for at least two years. Individuals were also required to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Citizenship was automatically extended to children of successful applicants under the age of 21, regardless of their birthplace. Children of U.S. citizens born outside of the United States were considered natural-born citizens, provided "that the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States." Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, any individual who desired to become a citizen was to apply to "any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least." Aliens could be naturalized not only in federal courts, but also in state and local courts.

...any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law to support the Constitution of the United States, which Oath or Affirmation such Court shall administer, and the Clerk of such Court shall record such Application, and the proceedings thereon; and thereupon such person shall be considered as a Citizen of the United States.

Naturalization Act of 1795 (29 Jan 1795):
The United States Naturalization Act of 1795 repealed and replaced the Naturalization Act of 1790, increasing the period of required U.S. residency from two to five years; introducing the Declaration of Intention requirement, or first papers, and a two-step naturalization process; and conferring the status of citizen, rather than "natural born" citizen.

That any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, or any of them, on the following conditions, and not otherwise:—

First. He shall have declared an oath or affirmation, before the supreme, superior, district or circuit court of some one of the states, or the territories northwest or south of the river Ohio, or a circuit or district court of the United States, three years, at least, before his admission, that it was bona-fide, his intention to become a citizen of the United States...

Naturalization Act of 1798 (18 June 1798):
The Naturalization Act of 1798 further increased the amount of time necessary for immigrants to become naturalized citizens in the United States from five to fourteen years. There was, however, a built-in one-year window that allowed aliens living in the United States prior to 29 January 1795 to become U.S. citizens under the previous five-year residency requirement. This act was one of four acts passed during 1798 known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, tightening restrictions on foreign-born Americans, and discouraging free speech against the federal government.

...he shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, five years, at least, before his admission, and shall, at the time of his application to be admitted, declare and prove, to the satisfaction of the court having jurisdiction in the case, that he has resided within the United States fourteen years, at least, and within the state or territory where, or for which such court is at the time held, five years, at least, besides conforming to the other declarations, renunciations and proofs, by the said act required, any thing residence therein to the contrary hereof notwithstanding...

Naturalization Act of 1804 (26 March 1804):
This addition to "An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization," eliminated the requirement for aliens residing in the United States between 18 June 1798 and 14 April 1802 to file a Declaration of Intention prior to their petition for citizenship. This act is also the first to specifically address the naturalization of a woman through her husband, stating that "after an alien shall have complied with certain directions his widow and children made citizens of the U. States," if they/she appeared in court and took the oath of allegiance and renunciation.

"...That when any alien who shall have complied with the first condition specified in the first section of the said original act, and shall have pursued the directions prescribed in the second section of the said act, may die, before he is actually naturalized, the women and children of such alien shall be considered as citizens of the United States, and shall be entitled to all rights and privileges as such, upon taking the oaths prescribed by law..."

1819 Steerage Act (2 March 1819):
The 1819 Steerage Act established standards to be followed by ships carrying passengers to the United States, including a requirement that all vessels reaching American shores deliver passenger lists to customs officials, who were required to send copies to the U.S. State Department, which, in turn, submitted the lists to Congress. The Steerage Act also limited the numbers of passengers on arriving and departing ships (two passengers to every five tons of ship), and instituted requirements for minimum provisions to be available onboard.

...That every ship or vessel bound on a voyage from the United States to any port on the continent of Europe, at the time of leaving the last port whence such ship or vessel shall sail, shall have on board, well secured under deck, at least sixty gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted provisions, one gallon of vinegar, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for each and every passenger on board such ship or vessel...

1847 Passenger Act (22 February 1847):
"An act to regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Merchant Vessels" established standards to be followed by ships carrying passengers to the United States, and penalties for captains not meeting these standards.

That if the master of any vessel owned in whole or in part by a citizen of the United States of America, or by a citizen of any foreign country, shall take on board such vessel, at any foreign port or place, a greater number of passengers than in the following proportion to the space occupied by them and appropriated for their use...on the lower deck or platform one passenger for every fourteen clear superficial feet of deck, if such vessel is not to pass within the tropics during such voyage; but if such vessel is to pass within the tropics during such voyage, then one passenger for every twenty such clear superficial feet of deck, and on the orlop deck (if any) one passenger for every thirty such superficial feet in all cases...

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