Q: My immigrant ancestor had a Social Security number. That proves he became a citizen of the United States, doesn’t it?
A: In the 21st century, we tend to view our Social Security numbers as evidence that we are U.S. citizens and assume that only other citizens can file an application for a Social Security number. In fact, many government and other entities use the card the same way. However, from the Social Security Administration’s earliest days of existence, non-citizens have always been able to acquire a Social Security number and the card was never intended to serve as a formal proof of citizenship.
The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a defensive measure for the future against another Depression like the one in which the country was then mired. It simply created a number designed to be unique for each person, in order to track a worker’s wages for the purpose of computing his or her eligibility for – and the amount of – benefits in the event of disability, retirement, or death.
A 1936 pamphlet printed by the U.S. government describing the policies and purposes of the Social Security system made no mention of citizenship. In the original instructions for the SS-4 (forms completed by the employer on behalf of the employee requesting a Social Security number) and the SS-5 (forms completed by the employee himself/herself), there was no mention of the citizenship of the individual. The only people restricted from applying for a Social Security number were people who were at least 65 years old or who would turn 65 by 1 January 1937.
Another pamphlet, distributed during the Cold War in 1953, explained why and how one should apply for a Social Security card, but again, no mention was made of non-citizens and there was no barrier to non-citizens applying for and receiving a Social Security number.
From its original beginnings as a simple device for tracking a worker’s earnings, the Social Security number gradually began to be used for other purposes. In the early 1960s, the government began using Social Security numbers as federal employee identification numbers. The Internal Revenue Service required that all federal income tax returns include the Social Security number of all taxpayers. As the 1960s progressed, other government institutions began using Social Security numbers for identification and record-keeping purposes, including the U.S. military and Veterans’ Administration. But there still was no mention of citizenship requirements. Anyone who completed an SS-5 to apply for a Social Security number was granted one.
It was not until 1972 that Congress enacted changes to how the Social Security Administration (SSA) dealt with non-citizen applications for Social Security numbers. These new laws required the SSA to issue Social Security numbers to all legally admitted aliens at the point of their entry into the United States. The law also required that the SSA issue Social Security numbers to anyone who applied for or received federal benefits of any sort, assuming that the individual did not already have a Social Security number. And for the first time, the SSA was required by law to obtain evidence from the applicant which established his or her age, citizenship or alien status, and which proved the identity of the applicant.
These restrictions were tightened even further in 1978 when the SSA began to require all applicants to prove their age, identity and citizenship status when applying for either a new or a replacement Social Security card. All foreign-born applicants were required to provide proof of their citizenship when applying for replacement cards, too.
More recently, the SSA has begun a program which allows non-citizens to apply for both an immigrant visa and a Social Security number prior to arriving in the United States. If the person is granted a visa, he or she is automatically granted a Social Security number upon arriving in the United States. All non-citizens who receive a Social Security number using this method are assigned a number beginning with the digits 729 through 733.
The table below provides a quick overview of how the Social Security Administration changed the way it dealt with non-citizens’ applications for a Social Security number between 1936 and 1988.
Changes in Social Security Card Evidence Requirements, 1936–1988
|November 1936||SSNs are assigned based on the applicant’s allegations.|
|November 1971||Evidence of identity required of applicants aged 65 or older for original SSNs.|
|October 1972||Evidence required establishing age, true identity, and citizenship or alien status of SSN applicants.|
|April 1974||Evidence required establishing age, identity, and citizenship or alien status of U.S.-born applicants aged 18 or older for original SSNs and all foreign-born applicants for original SSNs.|
|May 1978||All applicants are required to provide evidence of:|
· Age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status for original SSNs; and
· Identity for replacement cards.
|May 1987–May 1988||Aliens living in the United States since before 1982 are offered lawful temporary resident status. Because many aliens were unable to submit the proper identity documents, SSA accepted Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) documents as proof of identity.|
The lack of any requirements to prove an individual’s identity prior to 1972 is an important consideration for all of us who are relying on Social Security records to help us trace our ancestors, whether immigrants or native-born America citizens. Between 1936 and 1972, with the exception of applicants who were 65 years old or older, no one had to provide any proof to support their use of a name, their age, their date and place of birth, or any other answer to any of the questions found on the SS-5.
While this does not suggest that most or even many SS-5s contain incorrect data, it is a good idea to keep in mind the fact that there could be something on that form which is not accurate, either due to an honest mistake or in an attempt to conceal prejudicial information. If there is something on an SS-5 which is clearly at odds with other sources, that is your signal to continue searching for more sources to verify which set of records is correct.
So, while it is tempting to assume that finding a Social Security number attached to an immigrant relative’s name is a sign that he or she became a citizen of the United States — it simply isn’t so. If your ancestor applied for his or her Social Security number between 1936 and 1972 there were no requirements regarding citizenship, and non-citizens who applied for a Social Security number would have been issued one upon completing the application, form SS-5.
If you would like help tracing your immigrant ancestors, contact Legacy Tree Genealogists today. The initial consultation is FREE!
 Information for this blog is drawn from
“The 1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security” (transcript), Informational Service Circular No. 9, https://ssa.gov/history/ssn/ssb36.html, accessed October 2016; and
“General Instructions,” Form SS-5, https://ssa.gov/history/ssn/ss5.html, accessed October 2016; and
“Your Social Security Account Card,” Social Security Number Pamphlet Form 1953, https://ssa.gov/history/ssn/ssnpamphlet.html, accessed October 2016; and
“Social Security Number Chronology,” 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969, and 1972, https://ssa.gov/history/ssn/ssnchron.html, accessed October 2016; and
Carolyn Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 2, 2009, https://ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v69n2/v69n2p55.html, accessed October 2016.