In the United States, over 9 million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) qualify for U.S. citizenship but have not gone through the naturalization process. These noncitizen green card holders are authorized to live permanently in the United States. They qualify for U.S. citizenship after five years of residence and at that point may begin the process of naturalization. So what is stopping them?
LPRs can be hesitant to apply for citizenship for many reasons, but a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found that language skills, concern about the citizenship test, and the cost of applying are among the most significant.
The requirements for naturalization, like learning English, understanding U.S. history and civics, and demonstrating loyalty to the Constitution are important for the integration of new Americans and can increase their economic and civic engagement.
However, these requirements can impose substantial logistical and financial burdens on LPRs. And in recent years, LPRs have faced new barriers in the naturalization process that have less to do with the demands of citizenship than with the demands of bureaucracy. Through these barriers, the U.S. is inadvertently discouraging LPRs from becoming U.S. citizens.
A Center for Migration Studies analysis looked at naturalization rates for immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1991 and 2001. By 2019, 48 percent of those fluent or proficient in English naturalized, compared to 11 percent of those without English proficiency. In addition, there is a 38 percentage-point difference in naturalization rates between immigrants with more than a high school education and those with less. Immigrants with English proficiency and more than a high school education were three to four times more likely to naturalize.
Accessing English and civic resources can be difficult for LPRs, requiring them to find the time and money to take classes. The financial burdens are compounded by application fees. In 2019, USCIS proposed an 83 percent fee increase on N-400 applications, from $640 to $1170. The proposed rule also sought to eliminate fee waivers, essentially shutting people who could not afford the costs out of naturalization. The changes were blocked by court injunctions, but fees still pose a major barrier to LPRs. A randomized controlled trial found that LPRs whose incomes were low, but not low enough to qualify for a fee waiver, were 41 percent more likely to apply when a private donor covered their fees.
Procedural barriers also loom large. The two most significant are the USCIS N-400 application backlog and stricter scrutiny in the application process.
Naturalization applications spiked dramatically between the 2015 and 2017 fiscal years and again in FY2019. USCIS’ processing of naturalization applications was already backlogged by FY2015, and the spike caused that backlog to balloon. Between FY2015 and FY2017, the queue doubled.
Wait times also increased. LPRs waited an average of 5.8 months for USCIS to process their naturalization application in FY2015. By FY2018, that wait time jumped to 10.2 months. In FY2020, USCIS had nearly one million pending cases and an average wait time of 9.3 months.
The increase in applications contributed to the ballooning backlog, but changes to USCIS operations and the naturalization process made matters worse.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, USCIS, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and the relevant inspector general have identified other causes for the backlog. For example, adding 13 questions to the N-400 form in 2016 increased processing time. The 83 percent fee increase that had been proposed in 2019 led to a greater number of applications. And USCIS imposed a hiring freeze in FY2020 before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced other COVID-19-related disruptions, leaving the agency ill-equipped to address the volume of cases.
Increased scrutiny at the interview stage of the naturalization process has been another major barrier. In 2020, a Migration Policy Institute survey found that interview times doubled in some cities, from 20-30 minutes to 60 minutes. For example, in Des Moines, Atlanta, and Detroit, respondents reported interviews lasting over 90 minutes. Further, some reported that adjudicators asked questions “not directly related to citizenship eligibility,” according to the study..
Taken altogether, a high cost, a longer interview, and wait times ballooning to almost a year create conditions that cause many LPRs to put off the naturalization process. However, the results of not naturalizing can be dramatic for these individuals. As I wrote last year, naturalized citizens saw a wage boost of about 5.6 percent directly related to their change in citizenship status.
Overall, encouraging naturalization benefits both LPRs and the United States. The economic benefits of naturalizing include increases in wages, employment rates, and homeownership. The Migration Policy Institute found that naturalized citizens make between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens, in part because of higher employment rates, and that naturalized citizens are half as likely to live in poverty.
Naturalization also encourages civic participation, especially through the right to vote. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials claims that Latino and Asian naturalized citizens vote at “notably higher rates” than native-born U.S. citizens. Increased civic participation and economic activity benefit not only the naturalized citizens and their families, but U.S. communities and the nation as a whole.
The good news is that the Biden administration is looking to prioritize the issue, creating in February an interagency working group calling upon the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to identify barriers for immigrants to access U.S. benefits, like naturalization, and identify agency policies that impede access to the legal immigration system, like an increase in USCIS fees.
The administration has already undertaken some concrete actions to remove barriers to naturalization, such as reverting to the 2008 civics test, which is easier than a version adopted by the Trump administration.
Earlier this month, the interagency group published a report describing plans to ease naturalization barriers through citizenship public education, building community capacity to prepare LPRs for citizenship, and bolstering funding for LPRs, through increased funding to service providers in underserved areas, to use throughout their process.
Between 2009 and 2019, more than 8 million immigrants naturalized, according to USCIS. However, more work must be done to make naturalization easier for those hesitant to go through the process or unable to afford the fees. A whole-of-government approach can make naturalization easier for millions of people who need assistance getting to the end of their immigration process.