In Fiscal Year 1996, ending in September, over one million immigrants became naturalized citizens of the United States. This number, the highest ever in U.S. history, more than doubled the previous year's naturalizations and led to boasting of a job well done by the Clinton Administration and expressions of serious concern aired in media accounts and Congressional hearings about corners being cut in the citizenship screening process in an effort to qualify as many immigrants as possible to be able to vote in that year's presidential election. The next year, the naturalization program slowed back down and conferred citizenship on 598,225 immigrants.

graph of naturalizations

In recent years, the portion of permanent residents who had become citizens averaged slightly more than 40 percent overall. The 2000 Census found that 40.3 percent of the foreign-born residents were naturalized citizens. The share varied widely among nationalities, for example, in 1990 nearly 76 percent of Italian immigrants were U.S. citizens, while only slightly over 15 percent of Nicaraguans had taken that step. However, not all groups were equally eligible to apply for reasons that are outlined below.

Requirements for Citizenship

To become a U.S. citizen, several requirements must be met. All applicants must be at least 18 years of age (or be their dependents) and legally reside in the United States for at least five years (except for immediate family members of U.S. citizens, for whom the requirement is three years). In addition, the law requires an understanding of English (speaking, reading and writing) and the history, principles, and form of government of the United States, good moral character, attachment to the principles of the Constitution, and favorable disposition toward the United States. Ineligibility may be due to failure to meet any of the above requirements of as a result of opposition to the U.S. Government or U.S. law, favoring totalitarian forms of government, desertion from or refusal to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States or certain serious criminal offenses.

Section 335 of the Immigration and Nationality Act provides that "Before a person may be naturalized, an employee of the [Immigration] Service...shall conduct a personal investigation of the person applying for naturalization in the vicinity or vicinities in which such person has maintained his actual place of abode and in the vicinity or vicinities in which such person has been employed or has engaged in business or work for at least five years immediatiely preceding the filing of his application for naturalization."

The Current Surge in Naturalization

The applications for naturalizations have zoomed for several reasons. First, there were many immigrants eligible to apply who had never gotten around to doing so. Second, the number had recently been growing rapidly due to much higher numbers of new immigrants. Third, welfare reform legislation removed some benefits for resident aliens that remained available to U.S. citizens, and finally, a growing public concern about illegal aliens may have led legal aliens to protect themselves against any backlash by becoming citizens.

The surge in naturalizations caused waiting periods to lengthen unacceptably--far longer than the standard of six months; in major immigrant settlement cities the wait became over two years. The INS launched a major effort to overcome the backlog problem, and has largely succeeded in bringing waiting periods back to around six months.

The shortcomings of the "Citizenship USA" program in 1996 were documented cases of contractors who administered the training and testing in civics and English helping applicants in cheating, the failure to complete the background "good moral character" investigation, and unacceptable political pressures on the career service to sacrifice normal standards to speedy processing in the interests of qualifying new citizens to vote in the 1996 national elections. As a result some unqualified applicants, including some ineligible criminal aliens, were made citizens. The INS is still engaged in legal procedings designed to strip these new citizens of their improperly gained citizenship. The shame of this is that the vast majority of eligible new citizens will have their new citizenship certificate tarnished by the scandal.

The Oath of Allegiance

Section 337 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, provides the following "Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance."

A person who has applied for naturalization shall, in order to be and before being admitted to citizenship, take in a public ceremony before the Attorney General or a court with jurisdiction under section 310(b) an oath (1) to support the Constitution of the United States; (2) to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen; (3) to support and defend the constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (4) to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and (5) (A) to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law, or (B) to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law, or (C) to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.

Sample Questions for the Citizenship Exam

From Federal Citizenship Texts published by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and sold by the Government Printing Office

  • What kind of government does the U.S. have?
  • Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution?
  • Who controls the government in the United States? How?
  • In which branch of the federal government do the President and Vice President work?
  • Name one qualification of the Presidency.
  • What is the purpose of primary elections in choosing a President?
  • What are some possible differences between the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions?
  • How many branches do all state governments have, and what are they called?
  • Name one power of a state governor.
  • What is a common characteristic of all local governments.
  • Name one example of why democracy was not complete in the colonies.
  • What holiday, still celebrated in the U.S., was begun by colonists?
  • Why are amendments added to the Constitution?
  • Name two precedents set by the first President.
  • Name one result of the War of 1812.
  • Name two issues which helped to cause the Civil War.
  • Describe briefly U.S. policy toward immigration before 1917.
  • Did the Allies or Central powers win World War I?
  • What important event took place at Pearl Harbor in 1941?
  • Name one positive result of the Watergate affair during Nixon's Presidency.

Updated 4/02