Becoming a Citizen in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

As Election Day draws near, and immigration policy is front-page news, we take a look at how immigrants became citizens 100 years ago, back when the Eldridge Street Synagogue was in its heyday.
By Jackie Bein, Museum at Eldridge Street 2016 summer intern

One of my favorite points to talk about when I led tours of the Eldridge Street Synagogue this summer is the role the synagogue played in its congregants’ gradual adoption of American culture. Our magnificent American-Jewish landmark stands as a testament to the long history of immigration in the United States.

Becoming American on the Lower East Side was much more than filling out an application and receiving an official document. Many years of adapting to a new culture came before receiving official citizenship, and it was these years of experiences that fundamentally enabled people to “become American,” rather than the words on a piece of paper. However, many Eastern European immigrants aspired toward becoming citizens as a way to make this long-crafted “American-ness” tangible.

The regulations behind both entering the country and becoming a citizen underwent constant change during the late 19th century when the Eldridge Street Synagogue was established. This was a period of mass migration when more than 26 million newcomers, including 2.5 million Eastern European Jewish immigrants, came to the United States. The first major piece of “modern” immigration legislation was the 1882 Immigration Act, which compelled new arrivals to pay a $.50 tax and denied entry to “convicts, lunatics, idiots and persons likely to become public charges.”

In 1891, Congress passed another piece of legislation that created the Bureau of Immigration, one of the earliest steps taken to completely nationalize the immigration process and allow for more strict vigilance over who would get into the country. The next year, Ellis Island opened. Millions of immigrants would pass through until 1954. Many more pieces of legislation would continue to further enforce federal immigration policies. In 1924, the Johnson Reed Act imposed a quota for Eastern and Southern European immigrants, causing the flow of Jewish immigrants along with other ethnic groups to drastically decline.

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Amidst the growing vigilance over who could pass through Ellis Island, it became important for immigrants to affirm their identities as new Americans. Those seeking to become citizens filed a petition for citizenship. They were then eligible to take a naturalization exam. Because of this test, new citizens were often people who had immigrated to America years, sometimes even decades, before. Adults, or those who had come in their teens, most likely had not gone to school in America, if at all, and many seeking citizenship attended night classes to learn English, civics, and American history. These classes were given at institutions such as the Educational Alliance and the University Settlement on the Lower East Side. But often, especially as the years went by, attending classes or studying hard might not have been sufficient to pass the citizenship test.

Naturalization Certificate - Morris Dubrin

1911 naturalization certification of Morris Dubrin, an Eldridge Street Synagogue congregant.

It is hard to know exactly what questions were asked, because when the exams were first introduced, they were done orally in a courtroom, rather than on paper. Also, the test moved from focusing on hard facts to assessing “attachment to the principles of the Constitution”-  vague ideas that did not lend themselves well to memorization at the kitchen table after a long and arduous work day. For instance, some exam administrators tested the understanding of the “spirit” of the law by asking: “If you were employed at a certain place and went on a strike, would you obey the instructions given you by your union before obeying the law or the mayor of the city?”

Initially, the process of becoming a citizen was not under federal jurisdiction. It was up to local regulations. This meant that there were no uniform national standards and the process was decided by whatever judge presided that day. In 1906, President Roosevelt signed an act which centralized the process. Applicants for citizenship would now have to provide verification of their arrival, names and details of their families, and be able to speak English. As the 1911 naturalization certificate here indicates, an applicant for citizenship was required to “renounce all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and particularly the ruler of the country where the applicant first came from. The 1906 act made the process more organized, though measures to further consolidate it and to ensure against trick questions were not put in place until the 1930s.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the path to becoming a citizen has certainly changed, but the significance behind it is the same. Albeit an important legal step, it is just one aspect of what it means to “become an American.”

Like census records and ship manifests, citizenship documents can also help you discover more about your family history. If you are looking to find information about your ancestors’ naturalization certificates, you can visit US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ genealogy homepage. Other genealogy websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch also provide records.

Categories: History, Immigration, Jewish History, Lower East Side

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