Taking the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony is an emotional moment for many immigrants, and for good reason: it is the culmination of an often arduous process and many years of striving, and it opens a new chapter marked by possibility, from better job prospects to scholarship opportunities and full participation in civic life.
Yet for many immigrants who aspire to become U.S. citizens, that moment never arrives. Naturalization rates have declined over the past few decades, and the United States currently lags far behind other major host countries when it comes to naturalization. It’s a striking disparity given that the vast majority of immigrants express interest in citizenship. What holds them back? Why are some immigrants more likely than others to complete the naturalization process? Without answers, policymakers and advocates have little basis for programs to ensure that all immigrants have equal access to citizenship and its benefits.
Thanks to a partnership with New York State’s Office of New Americans, we are poised to provide the causal evidence they need to lift barriers to naturalization—a first step to unlocking the potential of the country’s immigrant populations.
A New Type of Program
Start with the price tag: $725 just to file the application, plus hundreds or even thousands more if you need English classes or consultations with immigration lawyers. Noting that the filing fee alone places citizenship out of reach for low-income immigrants struggling to make ends meet, New York’s Office of New Americans launched a lottery for vouchers to cover the cost. The lottery, in assigning winners at random, gives us a way to compare similarly situated immigrants who want to become citizens: those who receive the voucher and those who don’t. By following the two groups to see how many complete the application, we can measure how powerful the financial assistance was, and in turn how much the costs may be discouraging others from naturalizing.
It may be, however, that even eliminating the application cost isn’t enough to pave the way toward citizenship. The application process can be time-consuming and complicated, non-financial costs that are challenging even for those with resources.
Do these and other disadvantages keep low-income immigrants from naturalizing? To find out, we used the lottery to identify immigrants who are poor enough to qualify for the federal fee waiver, and then piloted various “nudges” encouraging them to apply and visit a local immigrant service provider for help navigating the process. Whether they follow through or fall through the cracks may indicate whether the challenges to naturalization run deeper than financial constraints.
After the Oath
Over the long term, the lottery winners who go on to become citizens could provide a basis for new causal evidence on the broader question about the value of naturalization. While many argue that gaining citizenship gives low-income immigrants a path to the middle class, it could be that those who are motivated and determined enough to complete the process despite its financial and logistical obstacles are simply predisposed to achievement. If citizenship does make a difference, making recipients more likely to, say, pursue higher education, start a business, or enter a profession, then the fact that so many eligible immigrants are left behind points to a troubling loss of potential for their communities. Following the lottery winners over time, and comparing their outcomes with those of the group who didn’t receive the voucher, could give us a better understanding of citizenship’s benefits.
Until then, we can look to cultural celebration surrounding U.S. citizenship as a sign of its influence in people’s trajectories. Speaking to a group of new citizens who had just taken the Oath of Allegiance, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who naturalized as a college student, told them:
If you are anything like me, today is a milestone that you will look back on with pride for the rest of your lives. . . . [P]ut your citizenship document in the safest and most secure place you can find. It is the most important piece of paper you will ever get because it represents not just a change in legal status but a license to a dream.
How can barriers to naturalization be lifted?
Randomized Control Trial
The cost of naturalization has soared by more than 500 percent over the past three decades
George Mason University
University at Albany (SUNY)
New York Community Trust
Robin Hood Foundation