official act by which a person is made a national of a country other than his or her native one. In some countries naturalized persons do not necessarily become citizens but may merely acquire a new nationality. There is no such limitation in the United States; the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and subject to U.S. jurisdiction are citizens. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to enact uniform naturalization laws. These laws require the renunciation of previous national allegiance (see expatriation).
Under the first American statute (1790) all unindentured white males who had lived in the United States for two years might become citizens. The period of residence was lengthened to five years in 1795 and, as a result of xenophobic sentiments then prevalent, to 14 years in 1798. In 1802, the term was reduced to five years, which remains the usual term. The McCarran-Walter Act (1952; amended, 1965) revised and recodified the entire body of immigration and naturalization regulations. By the terms of this act, declarations of intention two years before naturalization were eliminated, and naturalization could be granted 30 days after petitioning, following rigorous examination. The act introduced seditious behavior, discovery of fraud, and prolonged absences abroad as grounds for cancellation of naturalization, although the implementation of these provisions was limited by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. The act is administered by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Dept. of Homeland Security.
The petitioner for naturalization must meet several requirements, including the ability to read and speak English. He or she must also swear to support the Constitution, and must be adjudged of good moral character. The actual conferring of citizenship is in most cases the action of a federal court. Children under 18 become citizens automatically upon the naturalization of one or both parents. Minor children adopted abroad by American citizens now automatically become citizens as a result of the Child Citizenship Act (2000); previously the children did not become citizens unless they were naturalized.
The process of naturalization in some circumstances is shortened for members of the U.S. armed forces and for the spouses of American citizens, and there are certain exceptions made by means of private immigration and naturalization bills passed by Congress. In addition to individual acts of naturalization, whole populations may be naturalized. An example is the conferring of citizenship at various times in U.S. history on the populace of Texas, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
See also immigration.