Of the 13.3 million legal permanent residents (LPRs) in the United States, 8.8 million are currently eligible for citizenship. Many, however, are not making the leap from legal permanent resident status to citizen. The number of those naturalizing has been less than 800,000 for the past five consecutive years, and in 2013, a mere 8.9 percent of eligible immigrants applied for citizenship, according to the National Partnership for New Americans. Recent research by Manuel Pastor and Jared Sanchez with the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California, and Patrick Oakford with the Center for American Progress, analyzing the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of immigrants sheds light on a serious issue: the cost of citizenship has become a systemic barrier.
For those eligible to apply, the application cost of naturalization is one of the main barriers to citizenship. LPRs are price sensitive to the costs, so fee increases, such as the significant increase in 2007, may have had a negative impact on the rate of naturalization. Price increases are also associated with a decline in the naturalization of less-educated (and likely lower-income) immigrants. When the price goes up, naturalization rates go down. The current filing fee for Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for adult applicants is $680 ($595 plus an $85 biometric fee). This is certainly a prohibitive cost for individuals living below the poverty level. But it is also a barrier for those slightly above the poverty line, or what Pastor calls the “working poor.” As Pastor explained, average income thresholds for a family of four in 2013 within 150 to 250 percent of the poverty level ranged from $35,751 to $59,585. There are nearly 2 million adult LPRs eligible to naturalize within that range, representing 22 percent of all eligible to naturalize adult LPRs. A more realistic way to understand this, Pastor said, is that for the average household in the middle of the 150 to 250 percent range, the naturalization filing fee alone is about one week of post-tax take-home pay. Furthermore, the systemic cost barrier affects LPRs of Mexican-origin in particular, as that population represents 40 percent of those below 150 percent of the poverty level.
Why is it important to ensure better access to citizenship for those who are eligible to naturalize? Research demonstrates that naturalization, an important component of immigrant integration, can improve incomes, enhance civic participation, and strengthen social cohesion. Specifically, attaining citizenship can lead to an increase in earnings of between 8 and 11 percent. A 10 percent increase in earnings, Oakford explained, would mean an extra $3,575 each year for a family of four at 150 percent of the poverty line.
Increased naturalization also improves workforce productivity, growing the economy through increases in labor market mobility, investments in human capital, and improved job-skills match. Naturalization also benefits the children of immigrants—a significant component of the next generation of America’s workforce. Children growing up in homes with parents who become citizens see better outcomes over the course of their own lives. Subsequently, members of the future workforce will be better prepared to contribute to the economy. The role of immigrants and their children in the future workforce is significant to meet the future needs of our economy. In other words, taking steps to make the naturalization process easier for the eligible population will benefit all of us.
Citizenship is a good thing for immigrants and for the United States. Citizenship means a commitment to the U.S., to the constitution, and to learning U.S. civics and history. Citizenship also comes with many social and economic benefits for individuals, families, children, communities, and our nation as a whole. Addressing the systemic barrier of the cost of naturalization, therefore, is important to prevent citizenship from becoming a privilege available only to those who can most afford it.
Photo Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.