Naturalization documents in unexpected places

A common way to obtain an ancestor’s naturalization documents is through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). But sometimes other avenues are available.

When I discovered it was possible to legally obtain Italian citizenship through my great-grandparents, I knew the first documents I needed were my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. I needed to know if he became a naturalized U.S. citizen after my grandfather was born. I also knew that it could take many long months before hearing back from NARA regarding a request for copies of my great-grandfather’s papers. I was impatient – for my entire life, I had wanted to legally live in Italy. I simply could not wait months for a response from NARA. So, I started my own pursuit for my great-grandfather’s documents. 

The morning after I found out it was possible I was already an Italian citizen, I woke up determined to find my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. Let me describe my journey, in the hopes that this information will help you as well.

  • As my great-grandparents settled in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about an hour north of Chicago, I first called the NARA offices in Chicago. They suggested I submit a C-File request from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which I did, but which also was not a solution for me since receiving what I considered a timely response was still unlikely.
  • I then called the Kenosha, Wisconsin, courthouse – the person with whom I spoke at the courthouse suggested I contact the Milwaukee and Kenosha Historical Societies.
  • I called the Milwaukee Historical Society.  This was a dead end – they couldn’t help me.
  • I then called the Kenosha Historical Society. The individual with whom I spoke there suggested I call the Archives Department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, a local university, which, as I was informed, houses a large collection of area citizenship records.
  • Finally, a library archivist at UW-Parkside “made my life.”

I remember calling and asking a) if the library has the naturalization records for my great-grandfather, and b) if so, how I make a formal request for certified copies of these documents.   

The archivist responded, “Let me go look. What is your great-grandfather’s name?”

“Michele or Michael Stella,” I answered.

 She put me on hold for a few minutes and then returned. “I have them right here,” she said.

 Beyond elated, I asked, “By any chance, can you tell me the date of his petition and if there are any children listed on it?”

 “It’s dated July of 1921,” she answered, “and two children are listed: Louis and Finney.”

At that moment, I knew I could obtain my citizenship – Finney, short for Serfino, was my grandfather, born in November of 1920.

The archivist found all of the stored immigration documents for both of my Italian-immigrant great-grandfathers. She certified them all and mailed them to me. They included petitions, the certification of naturalization, and even a beautiful black-and-white photo of one my great-grandfathers. Many months later, I did receive my C-File request from USCIS, which included redacted information on the documents. In contrast, the copies I had from UW-Parkside were complete and unblemished.

My advice to you: if you run into obstacles with NARA, look to legal and historical institutions where your ancestors settled. You may find everything you need right there.

Stephanie Stella is an independent scholar who has been teaching literature and composition around the globe for almost 20 years. As a dual U.S.-Italian citizen, she splits her time between her two home countries. You can find her at stephaniestella.com

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