An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Gathering to Zion’

American Citizenship–Then and Now

Most of my ancestors immigrated to the US from England, Denmark, and Norway in the 1850s and ‘60s to “gather to Zion.” As far as I know, they all entered the country legally, but I have no family stories of either my great-great grandparents who arrived as adults or my great-grandparents who arrived as children applying for citizenship. Did immigrants automatically become citizens in those days or were they granted permanent status like modern green card holders without becoming naturalized citizens? Back then, it didn’t matter, I suppose—unless they wanted to vote.

Currently, it matters economically as well as politically. While green card holders can stay in the country indefinitely, they become ineligible for Social Security benefits after seven years—no matter how long they’ve worked in the country.

I wonder if my Scandinavian great-great-grandparents ever learned to read and write enough English to have passed a naturalization test. And how could they have learned enough US history and government for the test? I suspect many natural-born citizens might falter if asked how many amendments the Constitution has or who is next in line for the presidency after the vice-president.

I currently tutor a Mexican immigrant who is working for citizenship. The process is quite arduous. Besides demonstrating competency in speaking, reading and writing English, immigrants must understand the basics of American history and government. The process is also expensive–$675 per applicant—quite a sum if a whole family must be naturalized—and the money is not returned if the applicant fails the test.

No matter the cost and the work involved, immigrants want to pass the test and become US citizens. America now, as in the time of my immigrant ancestors, is seen as the land of freedom and opportunity. Salt Lake City is hospitable to both immigrants and refugees. Catholic Charities, the International Rescue Committee, Deseret Industries, the English Skills Center, and other organizations exist to help newcomers to our country learn the language, job and cultural skills. My non-English speaking ancestors were all women who had to enter plural marriage to be taken care of in America. Modern day organizations are a big improvement.

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