Naturalization: Citizenship is an avenue through which immigrants can obtain better employment opportunities and become more civically engaged.

Insights and Analyses

  • Naturalization is an avenue through which immigrants can participate in civic and electoral processes. Across California, the naturalization rate for all eligible-to-naturalize adults was nearly 70% in 2018.

  • Application fees, access to legal assistance, language access, and backlogs in applications create barriers to naturalization for immigrants. In California, Latinos and Asian Americans comprise a large share of those that are eligible-to-naturalize but have not done so. As of 2018, nearly 1.5 million Latinos and nearly 526,500 Asian Americans were eligible to naturalize.

  • The recent uptick in the backlog of naturalization applications, an increase in processing delays by USCIS, proposed changes that impact marginalized communities, and a focus on denaturalization are all part of the Trump administration’s “Second Wall” to naturalization. As of September 2018, California was the state with the largest number of backlogs in citizenship applications with over 140,100 applications in backlogs.

  • Research shows that lowering the cost of naturalization can result in increases in the rate of naturalization, benefitting individuals and the U.S. as a whole, as naturalization tends to improve incomes and enhance civic participation.

  • A few studies by Boundless estimate current naturalization backlogs. One study estimates that as of fiscal year 2019, there was a backlog of nearly 650,000 naturalization applications across the U.S. Moreover, another study estimates that there could be as many as 126,000 individuals who had received approval for naturalization but had not taken the oath as of March 18, 2020, when interviews and oath ceremonies were halted due to the pandemic. Depending on when USCIS offices open, these closures could interfere with these individuals’ right to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

Reducing barriers to naturalization is critical, as citizenship is one avenue through which immigrant families can become more protected and exercise their voting rights. 

The benefits of naturalization can lead to higher wages, better employment opportunities, and increase civic participation. However, there are multiple factors that impact naturalization rates such as language, education, gender, and family structures. Additionally, a 2019 report by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) found that USCIS was processing citizenship applications at a much lower rate, creating a backlog of applications, preventing immigrants from naturalizing and exercising their right to vote, and ultimately constructing a “second wall” of barriers to naturalization. In Paths to Citizenship, CSII analyzed the probability of naturalization among immigrant adults, grouping adults eligible to naturalize into three categories (low, medium, and high). To better understand the types of naturalization services organizations are providing to these three groups, the report includes case studies from interviews conducted with service providers. For example, individuals categorized under the low probability of naturalization tend to be older, less proficient in English, have a lower educational attainment rate, and a lower income. These individuals may require comprehensive and free or subsidized services that address multiple barriers to naturalization. One organization providing comprehensive services to those who are less likely to naturalize is Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA (Advancing Justice – LA) who for over 30 years has provided free and multilingual citizenship services in Southern California. Advancing Justice – LA’s services include application support (for the naturalization application, fee waiver, reduced fee waiver, and disability waiver), legal representation, legal helplines in AAPI languages, and text message follow up after application submission. These holistic services are offered in the form of workshops, clinics, and individual office visits. In partnership with national networks, Advancing Justice – LA also provides comprehensive training and support for citizenship services catered to historically underserved individuals like the AAPI community. To learn more about the different probabilities of naturalization read the Paths to Citizenship report here. To access interactive maps on eligible-to-naturalize adults in the U.S. click here.

Photo credit: Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Threats to terminate the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation without providing a pathway to citizenship creates a cycle of instability that affects an estimated 200,000 people in California that are either themselves TPS holders or live in a household with someone who is.

TPS was first created under the Immigration Act of 1990 and is granted to country nationals or individuals that previously resided in a country deemed unsafe to return to, generally, because of ongoing political violence or environmental disaster. As of February 2019, the 10 countries with TPS designations are El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Those granted TPS status can legally reside and work in the U.S. Once U.S. officials decide conditions in TPS-designated countries are “safe,” TPS holders lose their status with an expectation to leave the U.S. The possible termination and temporary nature of this status that is largely overlooked in public discussions, creates a sense of instability, or ‘liminal legality,’ a term coined by sociologist Dr. Cecilia Menjivar. This adversely affects not only TPS holders, individuals with rooted U.S. social, familial, and economic ties, but also the households they live in. Across California, 45% of the population in households with TPS holders are U.S. citizens. Providing a path to legal permanent residency for individuals with TPS is an important first step toward providing a path to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. Read more about TPS, TPS country-designations, and policy proposals at the National TPS Alliance’s site.

Source: These numbers were calculated as of February 2019, using the 2016 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) microdata from IPUMS. For more information on the methodology, refer to the methodological appendix in this report.

Photo credit: National TPS Alliance

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