Slovakia Genealogy Research Strategies
INS/USCIS Historical Essays
In the course of site reorganization, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has not reinstated several very illustrative and important documents relative to genealogy research. Until such time that USCIS reinstates this material, I have reprinted it here for reference. In some cases images were unable to be retrieved and are so noted.
The most important document refutes the old urban legend "They changed his name at Ellis Island". This is far from the truth and the USCIS/INS states as much.
Note the following story, which is a perfect specimen of a peculiar quality of the American mind, one bearing no small relation to Independence Day:
I have a friend who tells the story of her ancestor coming from one of the Slavic countries and he, of course, could speak no English. At Ellis Island when he was being processed and any question was asked, he would nod his head and smile. Since all he did was smile when they asked his name, the clerk wrote down 'Smiley' for his surname. That was the family surname from then on.
Whenever I see one of these "name change" stories, I'm reminded of the beautiful creation stories of the Native Americans, "How the Bear Lost his Tail," for example. These stories contain an important truth. They help us understand our world. But we are foolish if we take each one literally, without further investigation. The idea that all bears have short tails because an ancient bear's tail was frozen into the ice is not a very scientific explanation. Similarly, the idea that an entire family's name was changed by one clerk--especially one at Ellis Island--is seldom supported by historical research and analysis.
American name change stories tend to be apocryphal, that is, they developed later to explain events shrouded in the mist of time. Given the facts of US immigration procedures at Ellis Island, the above story becomes suspect. In the story, the immigrant arrives at Ellis Island and a record is then created by someone who cannot communicate with the immigrant, and so assigns the immigrant a descriptive name. In fact, passenger lists were not created at Ellis Island. They were created abroad, beginning close to the immigrant's home, when the immigrant purchased his ticket. It is unlikely that anyone at the local steamship office was unable to communicate with this man. His name was most likely recorded with a high degree of accuracy at that time.
It is true that immigrant names were mangled in the process. The first ticket clerk may have misspelled the name (assuming there was a "correct spelling"--a big assumption). If the immigrant made several connections in his journey, several records might be created at each juncture. Every transcription of his information afforded an opportunity to misspell or alter his name. Thus the more direct the immigrant's route to his destination, the less likely his name changed in any way.
The report that the clerk "wrote down" the immigrants surname is suspect. During immigration inspection at Ellis Island, the immigrant confronted an inspector who had a passenger list already created abroad. That inspector operated under rules and regulations ordering that he was not to change the or identifying information found for any immigrant UNLESS requested by the immigrant, and unless inspection demonstrated the original information was in error.
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible that no one could communicate with the immigrant. One third of all immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island early this century were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an of three languages. They were assigned to inspect immigrant groups based on the languages they spoke. If the inspector could not communicate, Ellis Island employed an army of interpreters full time, and would call in temporary interpreters under contract to translate for immigrants speaking the most obscure tongues.
Despite these facts, the Ellis-Island-name-change-story (or Castle Garden, or earlier versions of the same story) is as American as apple pie (and probably as common in Canada).
The explanation lies in ideas as simple as language and cultural differences, and as complex as the root of American culture. We all know names have been Anglicized in America (even the word "Anglicized" has been Americanized!). As any kindergartener learns, we live in a world where people ask our name then write it down without asking us how to spell or pronounce that name. Immigrants in America were typically asked their name and entered in official records by those who had "made it" in America and thus were already English-speaking (i.e., teachers, landlords, employers, judges etc.). The fact that those with the power to create official records were English-speaking explains much about small changes, over time, in the spelling of certain names.
Many immigrants welcomed this change. Anyone from Eastern Europe, with a name LONG on consonants and short on vowels, learned that his name often got in the way of a job interview or became the subject of ridicule at his child's school. Any change that might smooth their way to the American dream was seen as a step in the right direction. Perhaps this was the case with Mr. Smiley. It was the case of another family from Russia, named Smiloff or Smilikoff, who emigrated to Canada at the turn of the century. By the time their son immigrated to the US in 1911, his name had become Smiley. But some name changes are not so easy to trace. Rather than a different spelling of the same-sounding name, an entirely new name was adopted. These are the most American stories of all.
"Who is this new man, this American?" asked de Toqueville. He was Adam in the Garden, man beginning again, leaving all the history and heartbreak of the Old World behind. The idea that what made America unique was the opportunity for man to live in a state of nature, a society of farmers whose perception of Truth is unfettered by ancient social and political conventions lies at the base of Jeffersonian democratic theory. The New World became a place for mankind to begin again, a place where every man can be re-born and re-create himself. In such circumstances, the adoption of a new name is not surprising. Nor is it surprising in the cases of immigrants who came to America to abandon a wife and family or to escape conscription in a European army. There were all kinds of reasons, political and practical, to take a new name.
A newspaper in California recently ran the story of a Vietnamese immigrant with a long, Vietnamese name so strange-looking to Anglo eyes. The young man came to this country and began to work and study. He began every day by stopping at a convenience store to buy a "bonus pak" of chewing gum. Chewing all those sticks of gum got him through long days of working several jobs and studying English at night. When he finally naturalized as a US citizen, he requested his name be changed to Don Bonus--the surname taken from the "Bonus Pak" and chosen to signify all his work and effort to become an American. He was a new man.
If not for the newspaper story, we would not understand this name change. Mr. Bonus' naturalization papers would simply record the name change but not the reasons behind it. If he had not naturalized, his Bonus family descendents generations from now would be at quite a loss to explain the origin of their name.
The documentation of name changes during US naturalization procedure have only been required since 1906. Prior to that time, only those immigrants who went to court and had their name officially changed and recorded leave us any record. Congress wrote the requirement in 1906 because of the well-known fact that immigrants DID change their names, and tended to do so within the first 5 years after arrival. Without any record, immigrants and their descendents are left to construct their own explanations of a name change. Often, when asked by grandchildren why they changed their name, old immigrants would say "it was changed at Ellis Island."
People take this literally, as if the clerk at Ellis Island actually wrote down another name. But one should consider another interpretation of "Ellis Island." That immigrant is remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only immigrant processing, it was finding one's way around the city, learning to speak English, getting one's first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one's name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences, for the first few years, were the "Ellis Island experience." When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as "Ellis Island."
So, on this day when we celebrate the breaking of our bond with the Old World, let us welcome Mr. Smiley and all the new immigrants who will, in the next few years as they become Americans, make changes to their name which will confuse and confound their descendents for generations to come.
Changing Immigrant Names
"We know from experience that records of entry of many aliens into the United States contain assumed or incorrect names and other errors." From INS Operations Instruction 500.1 I, Legality of entry where record contains erroneous name or other errors, December 24, 1952.
Among the reasons for the "incorrect" names were the immigrant's using:
Name Change Stories
When an immigrant's new name no longer matched that shown on their official immigration record (ship passenger list), he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization. Letters from immigrants to the INS illustrate this problem.
All the letters were found among INS records now at the National Archives (Record Group 85) in Washington, DC, specifically Administrative Records relating to Naturalization, 1906-1944 (Entry 26).
In response to distant threats of war, the United States launched the Alien Registration Program in July of 1940. Pursuant to the Alien Registration Act of that year, every alien resident in the United States had to register at their local Post Office while aliens entering the country registered as they applied for admission. Alien Registration requirements applied to all aliens over the age of fourteen, regardless of nationality and regardless of immigration status.
Most resident aliens registered at a Post Office between July and December, 1940. To register, aliens were fingerprinted and filled out a two-page form. Perforations attached an additional card form (the AR-3) to the registration form. Each set of forms were serially numbered with a new development in Immigration and Naturalization Service recordkeeping--the Alien Registration Number. Registration officials forwarded completed forms to the INS for statistical coding, indexing, and filing. Once the AR-2 had been processed, the AR-3, or Alien Registration Receipt Card, was torn off and mailed to the registered alien. The alien then carried the Alien Registration Receipt Card to show compliance with the law.
Many millions of aliens who registered in 1940 had long been resident in the United States and remained here ever after. In some cases, a 1940 Alien Registration is the only INS document concerning such individuals. Early registrations (c. July 1940-April 1944/A-numbers below 12,000,000) are on microfilm in INS custody, searchable by name, date of birth, and place of birth. These records are subject to the Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act.
Alien Registration Form (AR-2)
Information included on the Alien Registration Form (AR-2):
AR-3, Alien Registration Card
Alien Registration Receipt Card, issued to a registered alien to demonstrate compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940
For more information: Brief Overview of the World War II Enemy Alien Control Program (U.S. National Archives)
INS did not create ship passenger lists. The forms were completed by steamship companies, who then submitted the forms to the government. In some cases immigration officials annotated the lists to clarify or correct information. In other cases immigration officials later added information to the records as a cross-reference to certain naturalization papers.
Annotations made at time of arrival:
This is an example of a 1913 duplicate Declaration of Intention to become a US Citizen. The original copy was filed among naturalization court records, and the triplicate copy given to the declarant.
Below is a 1915 duplicate copy of a Petition for Naturalization. The original copy was filed among records of the naturalization court.
Below is a 1916 Certificate of Naturalization. Beginning in 1929, certificates also included a photograph of the new citizen. Two copies of this certificate were issued by the naturalization court. The original was given to the naturalized citizen as proof of his citizenship. The duplicate was sent to the INS in Washington, D.C.
Prologue Magazine Summer 1998
Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2
Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940
By Marian L. Smith
There were certain legal and social provisions, however, governing which women did and did not go to court to naturalize. In general, immigrant women have always had the right to become U.S. citizens, but not every court honored that right. Since the mid-nineteenth century a succession of laws worked to keep certain women out of naturalization records, either by granting them derivative citizenship or barring their naturalization altogether. It is this variety of laws covering the history of women's naturalization, as well as different courts' varying interpretation of those laws, that help explain whether a naturalization record exists for any given immigrant woman.
While original U.S. nationality legislation of 1790, 1795, and 1802 limited naturalization eligibility to "free white persons," it did not limit eligibility by sex. But as early as 1804 the law began to draw distinctions regarding married women in naturalization law. Since that date, and until 1934, when a man filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen but died prior to naturalization, his widow and minor children were "considered as citizens of the United States" if they/she appeared in court and took the oath of allegiance and renunciation.(2) Thus, among naturalization court records, one could find a record of a woman taking the oath, but find no corresponding declaration for her, and perhaps no petition.
New laws of the mid-1800s opened an era when a woman's ability to naturalize became dependent upon her marital status. The act of February 10, 1855, was designed to benefit immigrant women. Under that act, "[a]ny woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who might herself be lawfully naturalized, shall be deemed a citizen." Thus alien women generally became U.S. citizens by marriage to a U.S. citizen or through an alien husband's naturalization. The only women who did not derive citizenship by marriage under this law were those racially ineligible for naturalization and, since 1917, those women whose marriage to a U.S. citizen occurred suspiciously soon after her arrest for prostitution. The connection between an immigrant woman's nationality and that of her husband convinced many judges that unless the husband of an alien couple became naturalized, the wife could not become a citizen. While one will find some courts that naturalized the wives of aliens, until 1922 the courts generally held that the alien wife of an alien husband could not herself be naturalized.(3)
In innumerable cases under the 1855 law, an immigrant woman instantly became a U.S. citizen at the moment a judge's order naturalized her immigrant husband. If her husband naturalized prior to September 27, 1906, the woman may or may not be mentioned on the record which actually granted her citizenship. Her only proof of U.S. citizenship would be a combination of the marriage certificate and her husband's naturalization record. Prior to 1922, this provision applied to women regardless of their place of residence. Thus if a woman's husband left their home abroad to seek work in America, became a naturalized citizen, then sent for her to join him, that woman might enter the United States for the first time listed as a U.S. citizen.(4)
In other cases, the immigrant woman suddenly became a citizen when she and her U.S. citizen fiance were declared "man and wife." In this case her proof of citizenship was a combination of two documents: the marriage certificate and her husband's birth record or naturalization certificate. If such an alien woman also had minor alien children, they, too, derived U.S. citizenship from the marriage. As minors, they instantly derived citizenship from the "naturalization-by-marriage" of their mother. If the marriage took place abroad, the new wife and her children could enter the United States for the first time as citizens. Again, if these events occurred prior to September 27, 1906, it is doubtful any of the children actually appear in what is, technically, their naturalization record. The lack of any record for those children's naturalization might cause some of them, after reaching the age of majority, to go to naturalization court and become citizens again.
Just as alien women gained U.S. citizenship by marriage, U.S.-born women often gained foreign nationality (and thereby lost their U.S. citizenship) by marriage to a foreigner. As the law increasingly linked women's citizenship to that of their husbands, the courts frequently found that U.S. citizen women expatriated themselves by marriage to an alien. For many years there was disagreement over whether a woman lost her U.S. citizenship simply by virtue of the marriage, or whether she had to actually leave the United States and take up residence with her husband abroad. Eventually it was decided that between 1866 and 1907 no woman lost her U.S. citizenship by marriage to an alien unless she left the United States. Yet this decision was probably of little comfort to some women who, resident in the United States since birth, had been unfairly treated as aliens since their marriages to noncitizens.(5)
By the late nineteenth century, marital status was the primary factor determining a woman's ability to naturalize. But other factors might have influenced a judge's decision to grant or deny a woman's naturalization petition. Some judges seemed unaware of legal naturalization requirements and regularly granted citizenship to persons racially ineligible, who had not lived in the United States the requisite five years, or did not display "good moral character." It may be that these judges also granted citizenship to women regardless of their husband's nationality. Women's naturalization records dating from the 1880s and 1890s can be found, for example, among the records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Record Group 21), though these records do not indicate the women's marital status.
After 1907, marriage determined a woman's nationality status completely. Under the act of March 2, 1907, all women acquired their husband's nationality upon any marriage occurring after that date. This changed nothing for immigrant women, but U.S.-born citizen women could now lose their citizenship by any marriage to any alien. Most of these women subsequently regained their U.S. citizenship when their husbands naturalized. However, those who married Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or other men racially ineligible to naturalize forfeited their U.S. citizenship. Similarly, many former U.S. citizen women found themselves married to men who were ineligible to citizenship for some other reason or who simply refused to naturalize. Because the courts held that a husband's nationality would always determine that of the wife, a married woman could not legally file for naturalization.(6)
There were exceptions to the 1907 law's prohibition against the naturalization of married women. Good examples can be found in the West and upper Midwest, where individuals were still filing entries under the Homestead Act in the early twentieth century. Many women filed homestead entries, either while married to aliens or prior to marrying an immigrant. Later, when they petitioned for the citizenship necessary to obtain final deed to the property, some judges granted their petitions despite their marital status. In these cases the judges held that if the government intended to deny the women citizenship it should not have allowed them to file entries with the General Land Office. In other homestead-related cases, the granting of citizenship to women seemed less a matter of principle and more a method, adopted locally, to acquire additional property.(7) Women's inability to naturalize during these years did not prevent them from trying. Many women filed declarations of intention to become citizens and may have even managed to file petitions before being denied. At least one woman's petition came before the court because she did not declare her marital status. Often women had no choice but to file at least a declaration of intent. In some states aliens could not file for divorce or other court proceedings. An alien woman seeking divorce might file the declaration simply to facilitate filing a separate suit.(8) Declarations of intention and petitions filed by women should remain on file with other court naturalization records.
A few women successfully naturalized in these years, but they might have subsequently had their naturalization certificates canceled. Finnish-born Hilma Ruuth, for example, filed her declaration of intention to become a citizen in the U.S. District Court at Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 1, 1903. In 1910 Hilma married Jaakob Esala, another Finnish immigrant, and in the same year she filed her petition for naturalization with the district court of St. Louis County, at Virginia, Minnesota. Her petition bore her married name, Hilma Esala, and the U.S. Naturalization examiner in St. Paul filed a formal objection to her petition under the 1907 law, which prohibited the naturalization of women married to aliens. The county judge overruled this objection and granted Hilma U.S. citizenship on November 19, 1910. The naturalization examiner responded by passing the case to the U.S. district attorney, who then filed suit in U.S. District Court on January 24, 1911, for cancellation of the certificate. The case was decided on July 11 at the Federal Building in Duluth, where Hilma's citizenship was canceled and she had to surrender her certificate of naturalization.(9) Federal court records of certificate cancellation proceedings are, like federal court naturalization records, found in Record Group 21. Unless there is a name index to the court's records, researchers will need to know the court's specific name (i.e., U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court) and location, the type of case, and case number.
The era when a woman's nationality was determined through that of her husband neared its end when this legal provision began to interfere with men's ability to naturalize. This unforeseen situation arose in and after 1918 when various states began approving an amendment to grant women suffrage (and which became the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920). Given that women who derived citizenship through a husband's naturalization would now be able to vote, some judges refused to naturalize men whose wives did not meet eligibility requirements, including the ability to speak English. The additional examination of each applicant's wife delayed already crowded court dockets, and some men who were denied citizenship began to complain that it was unfair to let their wives' nationality interfere with their own.(10)
Happily, Congress was at work and on September 22, 1922, passed the Married Women's Act, also known as the Cable Act. This 1922 law finally gave each woman a nationality of her own. No marriage since that date has granted U.S. citizenship to any alien woman nor taken it from any U.S.-born women who married an alien eligible to naturalization.(11) Under the new law women became eligible to naturalize on (almost) the same terms as men. The only difference concerned those women whose husbands had already naturalized. If her husband was a citizen, the wife did not need to file a declaration of intention. She could initiate naturalization proceedings with a petition alone (one-paper naturalization). A woman whose husband remained an alien had to start at the beginning, with a declaration of intention. It is important to note that women who lost citizenship by marriage and regained it under Cable Act naturalization provisions could file in any naturalization court--regardless of her residence.(12)
"Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married . . ."
Some women feel that a certain stigma attaches to the need of "naturalization" in the same manner as any lowly immigrant. Women of perhaps Mayflower ancestry, whose forbears fought through the Revolution, and whose family names bear honored and conspicuous places in our history, who are thoroughly American at heart, and who perhaps have never left these shores, but whose act in choosing alien husbands has caused forfeiture of American citizenship, bemoan the stipulation that such as they must sue for naturalization by the ordinary means.(15)
Not until 1936 did Congress comply with Crist's request, and then only for those women who lost U.S. citizenship by marriage between 1907 and 1922 and whose marriage had terminated through death or divorce. If she met this criteria she could file an application with her local naturalization court and resume her citizenship upon taking the oath of allegiance. The application was typically made on Form N-415, Application to Take Oath of Allegiance to the United States, which should be filed in separate volumes from each court's other naturalization records. Some courts, however, interfiled these documents with other petitions. In 1940 Congress allowed all women who lost citizenship by marriage between 1907 and 1922 to repatriate, or resume their citizenship, regardless of their marital status. Since then, any woman who lost U.S. citizenship in those years by marriage to any alien, even if they remained happily married, could resume her citizenship by applying and taking the oath of allegiance.
Still other misunderstandings arise today because some are unable to fathom that immigrant women may have gained U.S. citizenship by any means other than naturalization. There is a surprising number of elderly women alive today who gained U.S. citizenship by marriage to U.S. citizens prior to 1922. Too often they and their children are sent scrambling to obtain some proof of the woman's citizenship so that she might retain some benefit to which she is entitled. It was not until 1929 that women who gained citizenship through their husband's naturalization after marriage could obtain a "Certificate of Derivative Citizenship" from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). And it was not until 1940 that INS could issue certificates to women who gained citizenship by marriage to a man already a citizen.(17) While not in themselves proof of citizenship for legal purposes, proof of marriage to a U.S. citizen occurring prior to September 22, 1922, and proof of the husband's U.S. citizenship, remain as the foundation for legally documenting a foreign-born woman's citizenship.(18)
1. For information on the location of federal, state, and local court naturalization records and their availability on microfilm, see Christine Shaefer, Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (1997). For information about various aspects of naturalization laws and procedures, see John J. Newman, American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985 (1985).
2. Act of March 26, 1804--Widow and Children of Declarant (§ 2168) "shall be considered as citizens of the United States, and shall be entitled to all rights and privileges as such, upon taking the oaths prescribed by law." Repealed by Basic Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906, but continued in section 4(6) of that act. Repealed 1934, but citizenship of those who previously gained citizenship under this provision remained secure. An act of February 24, 1911, allowed the wives of insane declarants to naturalize following the same procedure.
3. Act of Feb. 10, 1855 (§ 1994, rev. § 2172); see In re Rionda, 164 F 368 (1908); United States v. Cohen, 179 F 834 (1910).
4. Sidney Kansas, Citizenship of the United States of America (1936), p. 67.
5. Frederick A. Cleveland, American Citizenship as Distinguished from Alien Status (1927) pp. 65-66.
6. Ibid.; see also Rule 24(k) of the Naturalization Laws and Regulations, Feb. 15, 1917 (1917), p. 33.
7. Report of Robert A. Coleman, Chief Naturalization Examiner, St. Paul, MN, to Richard K. Campbell, Commissioner of Naturalization, Washington, DC, July 1, 1910, p. 3, entry 26, box 1698, file 457177, pt. I, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter RG 85, NARA).
8. Robert A. Coleman, Chief Naturalization Examiner, St. Paul, MN, to Commissioner of Naturalization, Washington, DC, Feb. 2, 1924, entry 26, box 399, file 20/2, RG 85, NARA. See also "Must be Naturalized under Married Surname of Husband," in Kansas, Citizenship of the United States of America, pp. 70-71.
9. INS C-File 154992 (including naturalization records of Hilma Esala, District Court of St. Louis County, at Virginia, MN, Nov. 19, 1910, and court decree of the U.S. Circuit Court, District of Minnesota, Fifth Division, July 25, 1911, and other correspondence).
10. Sundry correspondence relative to courts requiring wife of petitioners to attend court at final hearing, 1919-1922, entry 26, box 1475, file 3929, RG 85, NARA.
11. Until 1931, women still expatriated themselves by marriage to an alien racially ineligible to naturalize.
12. Luella Gettys, The Law of Citizenship in the United States (1936) p. 50.
13. Case of Karen Marie Hosford, entry 26, file 23/3444, RG 85, NARA.
14. Paul Armstrong, Chief Naturalization Examiner, Denver, CO, to Commissioner of Naturalization Raymond Crist, Washington, DC, June 30, 1923, entry 26, box 399, file 20/2, RG 85, NARA.
15. Annual Report of the Commission of Naturalization, 1923, p. 13.
16. Thomas Griffing, District Director of Naturalization, St. Louis, MO, to Commissioner of Naturalization, Apr. 3, 1929, entry 26, box 399, file 20/2, RG 85, NARA.
17. Nora H. Reardon, "Derivative Citizenship of the United States--the Law, Procedure, and Practice in its Determination, and in the Issuance of Documentary Evidence of Such Status." (lecture, INS Course of Study for Members of the Service) Jan. 7, 1943, pp. 14-15.
18. Naturalization Examiner's Guide, Applications for Certificates of Citizenship, Documentary and Other Evidence (INS, Nov. 1, 1964), pp. 8-20 to 8-25 (TM 8-1-70).
Certificates of Derivative Citizenship are issued only by INS, not by the courts. To apply for a certification of citizenship, submit INS Form N-600 to your local district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Front of typical visa form, indicating the issuance date and consulate, naming the immigrant, and bearing a photograph.
Inside the unfolded visa application form, below. A long questionnaire compiles all information required by US immigration law, in many ways identical to that found on ship passenger manifests. Visa applications also asked for the names and addresses of both the immigrant's parents as well as all the immigrant's minor children. It also asked for all the immigrant's residential addresses for five full years prior to emigration. A variety of documents and/or vital records may be attached to a visa.
Why Isn't the Green Card Green?
What we know as a "green card" came in a variety of different colors at different times in its history. We still refer to them as "green cards" for the same reason dismissal notices are called "pink slips," sensationalized news is called "yellow journalism," and intended distractions are called "red herrings." In each case, an idea was originally associated with an actual item of the respective color. A Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) alien living in the United States may carry a card that is not green, but refers to it as a "green card." The alien does so because the card bestows benefits, and those benefits came into being at a time when the card was actually green.
The green card is formally known as the Alien Registration Receipt Card, Form I-151 or I-551. The first receipt cards were Form AR-3 (printed on white paper), and were the product of the Alien Registration Act of 1940. Designed as a national defense measure, the Act required all aliens (non-U.S. citizens) within the United States to register with the U.S. Government. They registered at Post Offices, and their registration forms were forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for processing. After processing, a receipt card (Form AR-3) was mailed to each registrant as proof of their compliance with the law. The Alien Registration Act, however, did not discriminate between legal and illegal alien residents. All were registered, and all received AR-3's in return.
As World War II ended and large-scale immigration to the United States resumed, alien registration ceased to take place at Post Offices and became part of regular immigration procedure. Aliens registered upon entry at the port, and the INS issued different documents to different aliens to serve as their Alien Registration Receipt Cards. Which document an alien received depended on his or her admission status. For example, visitors received an I-94c, temporary foreign laborers received an I-100a, and permanent residents received the I-151. This method not only reduced the number of forms handled by the INS, but helped to identify the immigration status of each alien. Thus the small, green, I-151 had immediate value in identifying its holder as a LPR, entitled to live and work indefinitely in the United States. As early as 1947, LPR's protested delays in processing their I-151's, complaining that employers would not hire them until they could prove their permanent resident status.
Following passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950, new regulations issued by the INS rendered Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-151 even more valuable. As noted above, the AR-3 Alien Registration Receipt Card (issued primarily in the early 1940's) bore no relation to an alien's legal or illegal status. Effective April 17, 1951, regulations allowed those holding AR-3 cards to have them replaced with a new Form I-151 (the green card). Just as I-151's were only issued to Lawful Permanent Residents entering through ports, only aliens with legal status could have their AR-3 replaced with an I-151. Aliens who applied for replacement cards but could not prove their legal admission into the United States, and for whom the INS had no record of legal admission, did not qualify for LPR status and might even be subject to prosecution for violation of U.S. immigration laws.
By 1951, then, the green Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-151 represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to permanently live and work in the United States and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials. As a result of the card's cumbersome official title, aliens, immigration attorneys, and enforcement officers came to refer to it by its color. The term "green card" designated not only the document itself, but also the official status desired by so many legal non-immigrants (students, tourists, temporary workers) and undocumented (illegal) aliens. The status became so desireable that counterfeit Form I-151's became a serious problem. To combat document fraud, the INS issued 19 different designs of the I-151 between its introduction in the 1940's and its complete revision in 1977. One alteration to the design in 1964 was to change the color of the card to blue. The 1964 edition was a pale blue. After 1965, it was a dark blue. Regardless of color, the I-151 still carried with it the benefits indicated by the term "green card," and those who wanted, obtained, issued, or inspected I-151's continued to refer to it by that name.
During the mid-1970's the INS studied methods to produce a counterfeit-proof Alien Registration Receipt Card for Lawful Permanent Residents. The result, introduced in January 1977, was the machine-readable Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-551. In use today, the I-551 green card has been issued in various colors as well, including pink ("rose") and pink-and-blue. Despite these changes in form number, design, and color, the INS document which represents an alien's right to live and work in the United States will probably always be known as a "Green Card."
AR-3, The Original Green Card
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