Sunday, August 16, 2009

How to Become a Citizen of the United States, circa 1916

May I suggest you take a look at one the Museum's newest exhibitions? As part of its "Living in America: The Jewish Experience" collection, you can now read from a book published by the "Immigrant Publication Society," just as one of your immigrant family members might have done circa 1916, if they had entered the United States through a New York port.

Perhaps you'd like to read the book while imagining that you are this family member. Maybe your English is poor; you arrived at Ellis Island with little money and are hoping to quickly find a place to live and a job. You are also not very familiar with the differences between life in the European town in which you lived, and the large metropolis which seems very strange and alien to you. You are concerned, but are nevertheless eager to acclimate to your new surroundings and eventually become a U.S. citizen.

Here is one small section from the publication "Guide to the United States for the Jewish Immigrant":

HOW TO BECOME A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES

"Immediately after your arrival in the United States you should go to a Federal court and make your declaration under oath that you intend to become a citizen. You do not need to be able to speak English to do this. Any immigrant over eighteen years of age may at any time make such declaration. In making this declaration you must give the same name as that on your certificate of landing, and you must remember the name of the ship on which you came, and the exact date of your arrival. To obtain the necessary certificate of this declaration of intention ("the first paper") you must pay a court fee of one dollar.

In many cities of the United States there are societies that help immigrants in the formalities necessary to become a citizen. In New York the Educational Alliance at East Broadway and Jefferson Street gives lectures on this subject and supplies all necessary information. And the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, at 229 East Broadway, gives lectures to newly arrived immigrants on this subject, assists in securing first papers, gives all needed physical help, assisting in filling out blanks and accompanying the applicant to court, when necessary. If you live in another city, and can obtain help in no other way, you may write for advice to any Yiddish paper that is published in the United States.

After five years of continuous residence in the United States, and after at least two years, and not more than seven years, from the granting of your first paper, you may apply to the court for full citizenship. Producing your first paper, you must then prove by the oath of two citizens who know you that you have lived in this country without returning to Europe at least five years, continuously--the last one of which you must have lived in the state in which you made application for citizenship. You must produce a certificate of landing, which is obtained from the immigration officer in charge at the port where you landed. You must give your approval to our form of government and prove by your witnesses that you are a person of good morals and law abiding character. You must give up all claims of duty to the government of your land of origin and take oath to support the Constitution of the United States. You must be able to speak English. You must prove that you are capable of exercising the duties of citizenship. This means that you must be able to explain the organization of the government and know how the laws are made and administered. The chapters on the Government of the United States, and the State Governments in this book contain information sufficient to enable you to answer nearly all questions that judges usually ask on these subjects. Learn these chapters thoroughly. The list of questions and answers that are sold about the streets are misleading and are of little use. To register this application and for the following hearing, the court fee is four dollars.

Ninety days after this, accompanied by two witnesses, you must visit the court again and declare again under oath the truth of all the statements in your application. If you then prove to the satisfaction of the court that you are worthy to become a citizen, you are granted full citizenship papers. "

Over the many decades that immigrants have arrived at such ports as Castle Garden and Ellis Island, the rules that they encountered along the path to citizenship changed to one degree or another. But here at least, during this period of time, these were the rules that needed to be followed.

To learn more--to get more of a feel of what an immigrant was expected to know--please read through the pages of this exhibition.
The link is www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/gus.htm .

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