Another myth about American immigration is that when people came to the US, they became citizens right away. There are many reasons they did not. Finances, language barrier, a five year waiting period with many forms to complete and a desire to keep open the possibility of returning to their home country are only a few of the reasons that they held onto their non-US citizenship.
The requirement for becoming a US citizen has varied significantly over time, but in general it was a three step process: After residing in the US for 5 years, you filed:
- Your Declaration of Intention To Naturalize. This was good for 7 years.
- Your Petition to Naturalize.
- Your Oath of Citizenship
Our great-grandfather Wilhelm Boldewahn filed his petition twice: the first time was in 1888, a dozen years after he arrived in the US. His father, Johann Boldewahn, who was 81 years old, did so at the same time, but died before he could move on to the next step.
Wilhelm however, never proceeded with finalizing his citizenship. He waited until after the US entered WW1 against Germany before refiling his lapsed Declaration. This may have had practical reasons as there was considerable hatred and bigotry towards ethnic German-Americans during WW1.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, anti-German sentiment rose across the nation, and German American institutions came under attack. Some discrimination was hateful, but cosmetic: The names of schools, foods, streets, and towns, were often changed, and music written by Wagner and Mendelssohn was removed from concert programs and even weddings. Physical attacks, though rare, were more violent: German American businesses and homes were vandalized, and German Americans accused of being “pro-German” were tarred and feathered, and, in at least once instance, lynched.
The most pervasive damage was done, however, to German language and education. German-language newspapers were either run out of business or chose to quietly close their doors. German-language books were burned, and Americans who spoke German were threatened with violence or boycotts. German-language classes, until then a common part of the public-school curriculum, were discontinued and, in many areas, outlawed entirely. None of these institutions ever fully recovered, and the centuries-old tradition of German language and literature in the United States was pushed to the margins of national life, and in many places effectively ended.
President Woodrow Wilson spoke disapprovingly of “hyphenated Americans” whose loyalty he claimed was divided. One government official warned that “Every citizen must declare himself American–or traitor.” Many German Americans struggled with their feelings, realizing that sympathy for their homeland appeared to conflict with loyalty to the U.S.
Some German Americans reacted by overtly defending their loyalty to the United States. Others changed the names of their businesses, and sometimes even their own names, in an attempt to conceal German ties and to disappear into mainstream America. Ironically, and contrary to Wilson’s opinion about divided loyalties, thousands of German Americans fought to defend America in World War I, led by German American John J. Pershing, whose family had long before changed their name from Pfoerschin. Source.
One year after war was declared, Wilhelm resubmitted his Declaration of Intention to become a US citizen. He was 67 years old.
Wilhelm’s citizenship was finalized in October 1922.
My grandfather, John Kamuchey, came to the US on September 25, 1907. He too waited decades to become a US citizen. He finally completed his paperwork during World War 2 in 1943 at age 55. Again, there may have been practical reasons as he would not have been eligible for retirement benefits without the citizenship papers.
His brother, Peter E. Kamuchey and his cousin George P. Karnas chose a different path to citizenship. In WW1 immigrants who signed up to serve in battle were fast-tracked to becoming citizens. In fact, 75% of them could not even speak English, but America still found a way to recruit and train them.
Below are photos of my great Uncle Peter E. Kamuchey and his cousin George P. Karnas serving during WW1.
What about the women who emigrated? Before 1922, women could gain citizenship through their husbands, and had no need to fill out paperwork. There were pitfalls to this process. For example, US born women lost their citizenship as soon as they married an immigrant. This was finally addressed in 1940.
If my grandmother Erna Boldewahn had married my grand-father John Kamuchey before 1922. she would have lost her US Citizenship. Even though she married in 1926, her citizenship remained at risk until 1940.
In the United States, from 1907 until 1922, a woman’s citizenship was entirely dependent on the citizenship of her husband. She automatically gained American citizenship when her husband became a naturalized U.S. citizen, as did the couple’s minor children. However, this also meant that an American-born woman lost her U.S. citizenship if she married a man who was not a U.S. citizen. Many American-born women unexpectedly found themselves expatriated after marriage to an “alien”. The Married Women’s Act (also known as the Cable Act) was passed in 1922, granting a woman nationality separate from that of her husband. At this time, a woman who had lost her citizenship between 1907 and 1922 could apply for naturalization using the same process as any alien. Beginning in 1936 however, Congress made it possible for these women to regain their citizenship by simply applying to take the oath of allegiance, but only if their marriages had ended due to death or divorce. In 1940 this last requirement was dropped, allowing the women to repatriate by simply taking the oath, regardless of their marital status.