Immigration and Citizenship in the US Census

It’s impossible to discuss the US Census without discussing the topic of immigration and citizenship. Recent debates, lawsuits and decisions regarding the inclusion of these questions in the 2020 US Census have become a heated topic with people having strong convictions both for and against it. This blog will not debate the current beliefs, social and political reasoning.

Questions about immigration date and status were required by everyone recorded in population schedules between 1890 and 1950. An individual’s immigration could also be inferred based on censuses since 1850 since they required the individual’s birthplace.

Why is immigration data from the census’s population schedules important to genealogical research? The answers to immigration questions provide valuable clues and the population schedules attempt to capture all of the individuals living in the United States. Information such as the year of immigration can help narrow down a timeframe to look for an entry in a ship’s manifest (passenger) record. It can also help determine which immigration processing facility an immigrant was processed through. For example, third class passengers entering through the Port of New York after 1892 were processed at Ellis Island. Prior to 1892, immigrants were process at Castle Garden.

Information to questions about a person’s citizenship status can also provide useful information. For example, a person who was listed as an “alien” in 1900 and their status changed to “naturalized” in 1910, you know that the person was granted citizenship within this 10-year range. Knowing a specific time frame, even if it’s 10 years, can help when seeking an individual’s application such as a Declaration of Intent or Petition for Naturalization.