Alien Registration Records

In 1940, some three and a half million resident aliens (immigrants who were never naturalized) were living in the United States. Among them were my grandparents. In 1903, my grandmother Angela Ciaravino Silinonte immigrated to the United States from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily; my grandfather Giuseppe Silinonte followed her across the ocean in 1904.

Background on Alien Registration

For researchers whose immigrant ancestors were never naturalized, there is an excellent alternative source of information—alien registration records. When the Alien Registration Act of 1940 was passed, alien immigrants across the United States flocked to their local post office to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Everyone over the age of fourteen years was fingerprinted. Each individual was given a two-page form to fill out (the AR- 2); an additional form (the AR-3) was attached with a perforation. The forms were numbered serially with an Alien Registration Number, or A-number, which was assigned to the person who filled out the form. The completed forms were then sent to the INS for statistical coding, indexing, and filing. After this, the AR-3, or Alien Registration Receipt Card, was returned to the individual, who was required to carry the card at all times.

The information on all alien immigrants was kept on file by the INS, which by this time was no longer part of the Department of Labor, as it had been previously. In response to Mussolini's declaration of war on France on 10 June 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt transferred immigrant services to the Department of Justice; immigration was now perceived as an issue of national security rather than an economic issue. Three weeks later, on June 28, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (a bill also known as the Smith Act, named for its chief proponent, Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia). When FDR signed the bill into law the next day, he made the following statement, as if sensing the potential problems in such a bill: “It is of the utmost importance to the security of the country that the program of alien control shall be carried out with a high sense of responsibility. It would be unfortunate if, in the course of the regulative program, any loyal alien was subjected to harassment.”

Of course, this was not the first time the United States had taken steps of this kind. In 1798, only twenty years after America had obtained its independence from British rule, Congress passed the “Alien Act” that authorized the president to order out of the country all aliens regarded as dangerous. During the First World War, legislation ordered the registration of aliens from nations at war with the United States. Alien immigrants were again required to register after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Of particular interest to the Department of Justice was the registration of aliens of enemy nations, such as Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Alien immigrants were photographed, fingerprinted, and required to list all family members and relatives—in this country and in the old country—indicating any who were in military service in an enemy nation.

Value for Family Historians

All of this activity was intended to serve the United States and provide potentially important information, but it has unquestionable value to family historians as well. According to the Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act, copies of these records may be requested for personal use. Early registrations are on microfilm at INS (July 1940 to April 1944, including A-numbers below 12,000,000), and are searchable by name, date of birth, and place of birth. Since conducting my own search, INS services have been integrated into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services (BCIS).

Copies of your ancestor's Alien Registration Files (or A-Files) may be obtained by submitting a completed G-639 form, Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act Request, which can be downloaded at . A search for “Alien Registration Records, 1940-44” on the BCIS website (listed above) will also take you to the correct screen.

My Silinonte Grandparents

As with any government inquiry made for genealogical purposes, patience is a virtue. I sent in my application in October 2000 and received my grandmother's file seven months later in May 2001. It took another nine months (sixteen months in all) before I received my grandfather's file, but it was worth the wait. His file contained 152 pages!

From these files I learned that in February 1942 my grandparents Giuseppe and Angela Ciaravino Silinonte registered for their identification cards/booklets as aliens of enemy nations under the presidential proclamation for Italian aliens (Proclamation #2527). I have their original booklets containing the number of months and years in the country, their photographs, fingerprints, statistics on height and weight, and address. The identification card is about the size of a passport and contains several pages.

My grandmother's file contains the forms she filled out in 1940 and again in 1942, as well as the names, addresses, and relationships for seventeen members of her family. In addition to her husband and children, she listed her mother, sisters, and brothers in various parts of New York State. My grandfather's file was no less informative.

One of the first pages in his file was a copy of an indictment against him for Second Degree Grand Larceny from May 1915. It stated that on 13 April 1915 Giuseppe had bought stolen merchandise: one black mare, wagon, and harness that belonged to one Cornelius Bergen. My grandfather told Judge Robert H. Roy that he didn't know the horse was stolen when he bought it, but a Kings County (Brooklyn) jury found him guilty and Judge Roy sentenced him to one year in the New York County Penitentiary. He was released after ten months due to good behavior. In 1933 he traveled to Canada and had some difficulty when he re-entered the United States. Although he had arrived at Ellis Island on 25 March 1904, he had no proof that he was a legal alien. Apparently he was able to enter the United States, but in 1940, this issue came up again during the Alien Registration process. If the INS could prove that Giuseppe had entered the country illegally after being convicted of a felony (the horse episode in 1915), he could be deported back to Sicily. For seven years deportation hearings were conducted off and on; Grandfather's INS file held these transcripts.Deportation Hearing

During a deportation hearing at Ellis Island on 9 April 1941, the following exchange took place between my grandfather and an INS officer:

INS: How old are you and when and where were you born?

Giuseppe: Fifty-five years old, born May 21, 1885, at Castellammare del Golfo, Province of Trapani, Italy.

INS: What was your father's name and where was he born?

Giuseppe: I was a foundling and was adopted by my foster parents when I was three days old. The surname Selinunte was given by the Municipality.

INS: Did you continue to use the name Giuseppe Selinonte after your adoption?

Giuseppe: I did not know that Silmonte was my name until I applied for a passport to come to the U.S. and after that I used that name. I was always under the impression that my name was Giuseppe Di Girolamo.

INS: What were your foster parents names?

Giuseppe: My foster father's name was Stefano di Girolamo and his wife's name was Francesca Fontaro.

Governor's Pardon

On 11 July 1945, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey signed a pardon for my grandfather, wiping the 1915 felony conviction from his record. The INS finally found his correct arrival date on Ellis Island (Grandpa had been giving them the wrong year), which at last gave him status as a legal resident alien. Had I not sent for his INS file containing this transcript, I would never have known any of this. As an additional bonus, the transcripts offered some variant spellings of the name Silinonte, which gave me something to consider in my future searches for this family. My grandfather died on 28 March 1964, two months before his seventy-ninth birthday. I am glad his record was cleared, but I am equally happy to have a horse thief in my family, the kind of “colorful” ancestor that most genealogists and family historians would love to claim! Perhaps one of your ancestors has a file being held by the INS. If so, you may make some interesting discoveries of your own.