Becoming a US Citizen -- how much have the rules changed over time?

My mother was born in Italy in 1921. She came to the US in 1931. Recently I found her Certificate of Citizenship, dated in 1962.

It states, “having proved to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that she is now a citizen of the United States of America, became a citizen thereof on March 30, 1931 and is now in the United States…” March 30, 1931 would have been when she arrived in this country or a few days after her actual arrival.

I assume my grandfather had become a naturalized citizen by then – he came to this country a few years before my grandmother and his daughters came here. My mother told me years ago that my grandmother took the test and became a citizen a few years after she got here. Well, sort of – as my mother explained it, Grandma was already a citizen due to being married to a citizen, but she wanted to be a citizen in her own right.

  1. Does it still work like this? Adult comes to the US, becomes a naturalized citizen, then brings spouse and children here and they are automatically citizens? If not, when did it change?

  2. My grandparents got divorced a few years after my grandmother went through the naturalization process. Would Grandma still have been a citizen if she hadn’t gone through the process on her own?

Your mother’s explanation does seem to be the case. The Immigration Act of 1917 indicates that “a female of the sexually immoral classes” did not obtain citizenship by marriage to a US citizen, which suggests that other females did.

It’s not still the case. Marriage to a US citizen is not currently an automatic grant of citizenship. It just entitles the immigrating spouse to apply for citizenship more quickly than other immigrants (after two years of legal permanent residence, IIRC, versus five for everyone else).

Right. Currently I think there is very little scope for automatically becoming a citizen, unless you’re already one at birth.

The best that you’re going to find for family based cases are some classifications (I believe including spouses and parents of citizens) that aren’t affected by quotas. That by no means implies an automatic process, it implies a lot of applications and paperwork and some number of months of waiting for processing. And that’s just for permanent resident status, the US citizenship filing is a separate process typically filed years later.

And if the relationship is less direct (e.g. adult siblings) then there are quotas that depending on relationship and country of origin can result in decades long waiting lists, or complete ineligibility.

I became a permanent resident and then US citizen through marrying a US citizen. Based on a website I used to track my case compared to others, the permanent residence application was processed in 119 days (51 days less than the average). My US citizenship application, done approximately three years later, took about 140 days from initial application until completion (saying the oath in an auditorium and getting my certificate).

I can’t speak for so long ago, and I can’t speak from first hand experience about today, but my understanding is that a divorce after naturalization isn’t a problem unless its part of wider evidence that the marriage was fake and the permanent resident and citizenship application was fraudulent.

Under a law passed in 1855, “[a]ny woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who might herself be lawfully naturalized, shall be deemed a citizen.” In fact, up until 1922, most courts held that a wife could not be naturalized unless her husband was, AND that a U.S. citizen woman who married a foreigner automatically lost her citizenship.

The Cable Act (Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act) of 1922 severed the connection between a woman’s citizenship and her husband’s. Kids under 21 automatically became citizens when daddy did up until 1940.

(I’m not sure how the Cable Act applied to the OP’s grandparents, although the fact that their marriage took place before 1922 may be applicable.)

There is, however, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. It did, however, create a lot of headaches for certain people regarding what the “legal and physical custody” meant, especially in situations involving multiple countries’ family laws and/or when one parent is either not a U.S. citizen or not in the picture at all.

To answer your question, I’d have to do some digging to find the applicable law at the time your mother came to the U.S., but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the ten-year-old daughter of a U.S. citizen became a citizen upon her arrival in the U.S.