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Naturalization, Naturally

Friday, September 14, 2012

It pays to be a U.S. citizen, and not just because citizenship grants one the right to vote, run for public office, access to certain public sector jobs, and the right to petition to have family members brought over to the U.S. – not to mention that unique feeling of inclusiveness in being American.

According to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute titled “The Economic Value of Citizenship for Immigrants in the United States” (www.migrationpolicy.orgpubs/citizenship-premium.pdf), naturalized immigrants also earn more, are less likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be working in high-skilled jobs. Between 2006 and 2010, naturalized citizens were also more likely to have better endured the economic turmoil, with median income dropping 5% for them as opposed to 19% for non-naturalized immigrants. Overall, for those working, immigrants who’ve obtained citizenship earn 50% to 70% more than those without citizenship (this stems primarily from higher education and better language skills, but even taking these factors into account, those who are naturalized still earn more). Furthermore, naturalized citizens are less than half as likely than their non-naturalized peers to be living at the poverty level.

Of the many millions of immigrants in the United States, only 16 million held U.S. citizenship, while another 8 million who were eligible to apply have not done so. From a historical perspective, the report notes that since the 1950s, the percentage of immigrants seeking naturalization has declined every decade. During the 1950s, over 80% of immigrants became naturalized citizen. Beginning in the 1980s, that number dropped drastically, declining to just over 60%. For the period of 2000-2010, that statistic had fallen to under 20%.

So why aren’t more eligible immigrants taking advantage of naturalization – and the many benefits it seems to bestow – compared to immigrants from earlier decades?

Part of the reason rests in the disposition of the immigrants coming to the U.S. Many of the immigrants who became naturalized during the 1950s were refugees from World War II. In general, refugees who qualify for naturalization are more likely to seek citizenship since they are far less disposed to returning to home countries where they face no future or are not wanted. However, a smaller percentage of the immigrants coming to the United States today are refugees than compared to the past.

In addition, the report notes that immigrants from high-income countries like Japan, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who make up a higher percentage of immigrants than in the past, are less likely to pursue citizenship. The report’s authors contend that “One explanation for this is that they perceive US citizenship as granting fewer benefits relative to their existing nationality, perhaps because they already experience benefits such as visa-free travel abroad, because they are more likely to return home, or because the prestige of US citizenship is not as great in their home countries.”

Also, for certain high-net-worth immigrants, U.S. citizenship may cause unwelcomed tax consequences ( These financial considerations may have precluded some individuals who were eligible for naturalization from pursuing U.S. citizenship.

America remains an alluring destination for immigrants, but the draw of citizenship is not as compelling as it once was in the past. Nevertheless, the economic benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks for many. And for those who seek it, the mark of U.S. citizenship remains a powerful status symbol.

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