Undocumented Citizens: The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940–45

Friday, January 8, 2010: 2:50 PM
Point Loma Room (Marriott)
Shane Landrum , Brandeis University
As the United States became involved in the Second World War, millions of its citizens found themselves needing to document their citizenship for the first time in their lives, usually for military service or to obtain a defense factory job. However, 43 million people, one-third of working-age Americans, were unable to do so. They lacked a birth certificate, the primary document of US birthright citizenship, because their local governments had never recorded their births. This paper explores the experiences of these citizens as they attempted to obtain birth certificates, particularly their difficult interactions with state-level bureaucracies in Georgia, Virginia, and California. State-level vital records offices, unused to such high levels of demand for birth certificates, were paralyzed by the volume of work. I explore the daily work of these offices and their mostly-female clerical staffs, demonstrating how women's labor was central to the functioning of the growing national security state.

My paper also explores the impact of birth certificates as a form of US government infrastructure. In Virginia, the 1927 Racial Integrity Act provided the only means by which its adult citizens could register their own births; its rigid genealogical standards of race made obtaining birth certificates particularly difficult for Virginians of indigenous descent. In California, anti-immigrant laws made it difficult for any adult to register his or her own birth; these laws had unexpectedly negative effects on native-born Californians whose births were unregistered. During and after World War II, birth certificates became necessary for factory workers, Social Security claimants, and military dependents. I demonstrate how the daily uses of these documents to prove citizenship, age, race, and parentage created significant new problems for Americans whose births had been overlooked by state bureaucracies in the first decades of the 20th century.