Our resident genealogist, the charming and smart Rich Venezia of Rich Roots Genealogy, has returned with more helpful hints on discovering our individual stories. Many of you of Italian descent, have e-mailed me about obtaining Italian Citizenship. Rich is the expert . Here he talks about the first and most important step – naturalization of your ancestors.
Dear Readers of Nonna’s Mulberry Tree,
This month, we’ll be tackling a question I am asked all the time: How do I know if I qualify for dual citizenship?
While there are lots of rules and regulations – it is the Italian government, after all! The most important question you have to answer is the naturalization question. Just when did your ancestor become an American Citizen? If your Italian ascendant (say, your grandfather), naturalized prior to the birth of their child/your American-born ascendant (say, your father) – well, then the Italian bloodline was not passed through, and you’d be ineligible. However, if the Italian ascendant never naturalized, or naturalized after the birth of your American-born ascendant – well, we may be in business!
What? You don’t get it? Simple – we’ll use Midge as an example. Her Grandfather, Francisco Guerrera became a naturalized American Citizen after Midge’s dad, Giovanni Francisco Guerrera, was born. Even though her dad never understood that he was an Italian citizen until Midge started researching – he was! The Italians don’t care where you are born if at the time of your birth your parents – or parent – is an Italian citizen, then you are too!!! Midge’s story.
So, the first step to citizenship – start looking into your parent’s or grandparent’s (great grandparent’s, etc.) naturalization. Here are some places you can survey –
The best place to start is by searching census records. These are accessible in various places online – notably Ancestry.com (check if your library has a subscription). Censuses starting in 1900 have a citizenship status column, and censuses until 1940 are available. (1950 becomes available in 2023.) If your grandfather immigrated in 1913, you should be able to find him on the 1920 census. Usually, one of four things are listed in the citizenship column:
NA = Naturalized
PA = First papers submitted (usually, a declaration of intent [to become a citizen])
AL = Alien (i.e., unnaturalized)
NR or blank = No record; it’s possible immigrant provided the info or know
Thanks to Ancestry.com – we see the PA and AL on the right.
So – if you find Grandpa in 1920, and he is listed as AL, and then you find him again in 1930, and he listed as NA – you can surmise that he probably became a citizen between 1920 and 1930. (Now – let’s just hope your father was born in 1919!)
The thing about censuses is that they can be very inaccurate, so it is unwise to take this information as completely factual without corroborating with further research. I have seen people go from being listed as “NA” in one census to “AL” in the next census, or people list “PA” for 30 years running! Do use the censuses as a guide, but just a guide! You’ll want to corroborate your information, especially for something as important and complex as obtaining dual citizenship.
World War I Draft Registration from FamilySearch noted he was an alien.
If your male Italian ancestor was here in 1917 and/or 1918, and was “of fighting age” – that is, born between about 1873 and 1900, he should be included in the World War I draft registration card database. Note that all eligible men had to register – these cards don’t just exist for men who served in WWI. These registration cards can be found on websites like Ancestry.com or Fold3, as well as for free on FamilySearch. Most of these cards have a question relating to citizenship status – whether the registrant is a natural-born citizen, a naturalized citizen, an alien, or having declared intention. If your ancestor’s citizenship status matches that on the 1920 census (remember there were 2 or 3 years in between), you are one step closer to the truth.
Now that you have a timeframe in which your ancestor may have naturalized, what do you do next? The age-old answer: It depends. Naturalization records are held at different repositories, and each state and county may hold their records at different places. In New Jersey, most county clerks hold the naturalization records for their county (for instance, Middlesex County and Hudson County records can be found in those counties.). By calling the Office of the County Clerk, you can determine if they hold these records. However, in Monmouth County, for instance, their records are held at their County Archives – which has a searchable database online! It is worth the phone call to see if you can do the research from the comforts of home!
Michelle Tucker Chubenko of Jersey Roots Genealogy is a colleague and friend of mine. She wrote a blog post that might be helpful on finding records in the NJ district courts.
In Pennsylvania, records are *generally* held at the Prothonotary’s Office, but this differs from county to county.
This is Midge, I had never in my life heard the word “prothonotary.” What the hell is that? According to the source for all – Wikipedia: The word prothonotary is recorded in English since 1447, as “principal clerk of a court,” from L.L. prothonotarius (c. 400), from Greek protonotarios “first scribe.” Who knew?!
If you are having trouble finding the records, keep in mind that some state archives, local or regional libraries, or genealogical societies may also hold these naturalization records. The New Jersey State Archives, for instance, holds a vast collection of naturalization records – for some counties, into the 1940s and 1950s! (Union or Sussex County ancestors, anyone?)
Another complication is that the naturalization laws changed in 1906 – and a lot of Local Courts lost their ability to naturalize citizens. Now the search gets a little sticky! Just what court naturalized our ancestor??
If a US District Court existed in the city or county where your ancestor lived, it’s extremely likely they would have naturalized through this court. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, for instance, after 1906, all naturalizations occurred in the US District Court of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. In New York City, many immigrants would have been naturalized at the US District Court of New York (Southern District) if they were Manhattanites or from the Bronx. Queens, Kings, and Staten Island residents likely naturalized through the US District Court of New York (Eastern District). In New Jersey, there were District Courts in Newark, Camden, and Trenton. The records of the US District Courts are generally held by their regional branch of the National Archives (NARA) – NY and NJ at NARA New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at NARA Philadelphia, Ohio at NARA Chicago, etc.
My nonno was naturalized in a Local Court.
The good news is that a lot of these records can be searched online (at least up to the 1930s or 1940s). Italian Genealogical Group has indexed the records of the NJ and NY District Courts. The Pennsylvania District Courts’ records are on Ancestry.com up till 1930. FamilySearch also has a large amount of naturalization records available online for free – both District Court and Local Court records. You can also order a search with NARA for a nominal fee – National Archives.
If you have lots of time to wait and not a lot of time to do the research – this may be the option for you. It requires a little less detective work but a long waiting period . Just pay the fee and order an index search from US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). They hold all naturalization records from 1906 onward. A search can be ordered here: US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The current waiting period to receive the results of the index search is anywhere from 6-8 months. That doesn’t seem so bad. However, then factor in another 6-8 months to receive the record if one has been found using the index search. I generally find it a little easier to verify naturalization by other means. However, you should be able to use the results of the index search to determine your eligibility. A date of naturalization is usually listed on the index search, so you can determine whether this was before or after the birth of your American-born ancestor.
A USCIS index search would also come in handy if you believe your ancestor never naturalized. There will likely be an AR-2 (alien registration form) for them if they were alive in 1940. (Midge here -Why is it that alien makes me think of ET Phone Home?) Even if the USCIS search is negative – no naturalization for grandpa – you may subsequently request a letter certifying the non-existence of a naturalization. If this were the case for your ancestor, the Italian Consulate would require such a letter for your dual citizenship appointment.
The bottom line is – no matter how you find your ancestor’s naturalization record, the date that they were granted citizenship to America is key. It must be after the date of their child, your American-born ascendant. The concept of dual citizenship jure sanguinis, through bloodline, only works if the bloodline is unbroken – and until 1992, Italian nationals could hold only one citizenship.
In boca al lupo. May your search be swift and uncomplicated, and may you be eligible for a beautiful red passport!
Rich Venezia is a professional genealogist based in Pittsburgh, PA. He specializes in Italian, Irish, and immigrant ancestry, and NJ/NYC and Pittsburgh-area research. He also assists clients with dual citizenship applications. He has worked on two genealogy TV shows (including PBS’ “Genealogy Roadshow”) and is available for client research and speaking engagements. His website can be found at richroots.net and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He adores Midge and her blog, and is so thrilled to be visiting with her regularly. A presto!