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Citizenship Lessons from the Past: The Contours of Immigrant Naturalization in the Early 20th Century

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What were the determinants and patterns of naturalization in the first two decades of the 20th century? Low levels of citizenship acquisition among contemporary immigrants are frequently contrasted to the assumed rapid naturalization of prior European migrants, but in truth we know little about the earlier period. Historic data are well suited to investigate four explanations for naturalization: individuals' resources and skills; regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to citizenship; relative costs and benefits of citizenship; and the degree of political mobilization directed to immigrants. Methods.

I use U.S. Census microfile data to run logistic regression models, and documentary material to examine the contours of immigrant naturalization in the early 20th century. Results.

I find that while individual attributes matter, place of residence could be even more important; in 1900, where an immigrant lived influenced naturalization more than birthplace, ability to speak English, or literacy. Residence effects seem linked to a state's relative openness to immigration and local political mobilization. Over time, however, residence effects attenuate as the 1906 Naturalization Act and establishment of a federal naturalization bureaucracy appear to make citizenship patterns more uniform across the country. Conclusions.

These findings suggest that historic and contemporary explanations of immigrants' naturalization should focus as much on the context of reception as the presumed quality of immigrants.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of California, Berkeley

Publication date: 2006-12-01

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