Asian-American veterans of WWI faced great difficult in both attaining and retaining U.S. citizenship via naturalization for many years after the war ended in 1918. Even as U.S. citizens, many Japanese-American vets were interned during WWII.
Congress passed the first law regulating naturalization in 1790 (1 Stat. 103). In general, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of 5 years. After residing in the United States for 2 years, an alien could file a “declaration of intent” to become a citizen. After 3 additional years, the alien could “petition for naturalization.” After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued to the alien. An alien could be naturalized by any court of record.
There were two notable exceptions to the “two-step, 5-year” general rule. First, “derivative” citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. Second, special consideration was given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization–without previously having filed a declaration of intent–after only 1 year of residence in the United States. Under the Act of May 9, 1918, aliens serving in the U.S. armed forces during “the present war” were allowed to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years’ residence. Over 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919.
The Act explicitly made clear that Filipinos who had served in the military were eligible for citizenship. However, its continued use of the term “any alien” was ambiguous as to the eligibility of other Asian groups for military naturalization. When Congressman Moore of Pennsylvania asked whether the term “may not apply to Japanese or Chinese who may be engaged somewhere in the Navy or the Army?”‘, the Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, John Burnett, replied that the Act made other “Asiatics” ineligible to naturalize. Even the Bureau of Naturalization adopted the position that other Asians did not qualify under the Act. In contrast, Judge Horace W. Vaughan, of the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, interpreted the law to include all Asian immigrants serving in the military and began issuing naturalization orders, bypassing the Bureau of Naturalization.
Being able to claim naturalization was critical to many Asian-American veterans, who otherwise would have to leave the United States. Ko Fuk, a Chinese-American citizen who served on a U.S. Navy battleship, used his WWI naturalization certificate as proof of right to remain in the U.S. in 1922.
With all three branches of the government issuing conflicting interpretations of the Act, the case of Hidemitsu Toyota, who was naturalized at Federal Court in Boston in May 26, 1921, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. While Toyota’s case was still waiting to be heard, the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 against Bhagat Singh Thind, also a WWI veteran, retroactively denying all Indian-Americans born abroad citizenship for not being a white person “in accordance with the understanding of the common man.” Indian-Americans were considered a separate category from “Asiatics” or “Orientals”. Unfortunately, on May 25, 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Filipino Asians were not included in the Act of May 9, 1918 and Toyota’s Certificate of Naturalization was cancelled.
In 1933, Japanese WWI veteran, Tokie Slocum, began his campaign to allow Asian-American veterans the ability to naturalize. Slocum was naturalized in 1921 and believed that his naturalization was cancelled by the Toyota Supreme Court Order. He began writing literally everyone he could think of, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, members of Congress, state legislators, local politicians, and attorney generals. Slocum testified in front of Congress and became the driving force behind the Act of June 24, 1935. This new Act allowed (1) Asian veterans of WWI to naturalize, (2) allowed Asians naturalized during the war to have their certificates validated, and (3) allowed new certificates issued to those who lost them.
As a result, at least 700 Asian-American soldiers/veterans naturalized during and after WWI. Bhagat Singh Thind, who previously lost his Supreme Court case, was able to naturalize under the Act of June 24, 1935. Since Thind was now an attorney, having citizenship allowed him to practice in his state. But, many WWI vets, including Tokie Slocum, were interned during WWII. Racial bars on naturalization did not end until 1952.