July 19, 2019
Most Americans probably don’t think about citizenship much. After all, they were born in the United States, and most likely their parents were too. However, when doing genealogical research, it’s a topic that often arises. Was your ancestor a citizen? If he wasn’t, how did he obtain, or not obtain, citizenship? The answers to these questions can be complex and can require research even before the dedicated researcher can begin to look for records. Citizenship for children can be an especially complicated topic and differs in some respects from citizenship for adults.
Birthright citizenship is probably the way that most of us got our citizenship and the way that many of our ancestors did, as well. Since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, birthright citizenship has been automatically granted to children born in the United States and many of its territories. Whether the parents are also citizens does not affect this law; children of non-citizens born in the United States are Americans from the moment they’re born. Birthright citizenship is also automatically granted to children born to U.S. citizens elsewhere in the world, although there are a few exceptions. While a child born overseas to married parents who are U.S. citizens is almost always a citizen, there is a difference in how the citizenship of a child born overseas to an unmarried woman or an unmarried man is handled. If an unmarried woman has a child with a non-citizen, her child is automatically a U.S. citizen. The reverse is not true. A U.S. citizen who fathers a child overseas does not confer U.S. citizenship upon his child unless he takes a series of steps to prove his paternity. These steps must be taken before the child turns 18 years old in order for the child to gain U.S. citizenship. This asymmetry in handling the citizenship of children born to unmarried women versus those born to unmarried men was caused by the fact that Congress was concerned about a potential flood of illegitimate Korean and Vietnamese children later claiming citizenship on the basis of their parentage by American servicemen serving in wars in their countries.
Children of naturalized citizens born in the United States are, of course, citizens of the United States. Children of immigrants who were born outside of the United States, whose parents were naturalized after their birth, may become citizens at the same time their parent does, depending on their age at the time of the naturalization. Children who were under sixteen years of age (or eighteen depending on the time period) were automatically granted citizenship when their parents were. This type of citizenship is called derivative citizenship since it derives from the citizenship of another person, in this case a parent. If a parent did not naturalize, his children would have needed to become naturalized themselves. For example, two of my great grand uncles came to the United States in 1869 with their parents. The children were four and seven years of age at the time they arrived. Their father filed First Papers but did not complete the naturalization process before his death. The two uncles, now grown men who had spent most of their lives in America, were not U.S. citizens until they completed their own individual naturalization process in the 1890s. Children who were over the age of sixteen (or eighteen) when their parents naturalized would also have needed to complete the naturalization process themselves to become citizens.
From just this brief review of how children become citizens, it is clear that becoming a citizen, even for children, was sometimes not a straightforward process for our ancestors. This means that finding records, or even knowing that such records might exist, can require serious research. However, for most genealogists, the end result is worth the search.
Researcher/Director at Large