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 71% in 2019.

  • Throughout the state, as of 2019, over 2.1 million immigrant adults were eligible-to-naturalize but have not done so.

  • Application fees, access to legal assistance, language access, and backlogs in applications create barriers to naturalization for immigrants. Additionally, language, education, gender, and family structure, such as having an undocumented family member, impact the probability of naturalization. In California, Latinos and Asian Americans comprise a large share of those that are eligible-to-naturalize but have not done so. As of 2019, nearly 1.3 million Latinos and around 492,000 Asian Americans were eligible to naturalize.

  • As of mid-2022, according to their annual report, the backlog of naturalization applications continued to pose challenges for USCIS, as the agency attempted to adopt measures to speed up its ability to process cases. Although USCIS attempted to increase their capacity to address the pandemic’s impact on its ability to process cases, it faced an uphill battle. The agency has a long history of backlogs including an uptick that occurred under the previous Trump administration due to proposed changes that impacted marginalized communities, its focus on denaturalization, and building a “second wall” to prevent and discourage naturalization. Data from USCIS showed a backlog of about 800,000 naturalization applications total at the end of FY 2021. As of April 2022, according to the annual report, total pending applications (i.e., naturalization and other adjustments in status) stood at about 8.5 million, an increase compared to the 5.7 million pending applications at the end of fiscal year 2019.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to delays in the completion of naturalization applications. At the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, USCIS reported that approximately 706,000 immigrants naturalized, the lowest number in the last five years. By the end of fiscal year 2021, the agency reported adjudicating about 1.8 million fewer applications (for citizenship and adjustments of status) than it received.

  • A report assessing the impact of immigration fees on naturalization found that lowering the cost of naturalization is linked to increases in the rate of naturalization. Naturalization benefits individuals and the U.S. as a whole, as it tends to improve incomes for immigrants, enhances their civic participation, and results in U.S. GDP growth.

  • Boundless estimated that as of March 18, 2020, 126,000 individuals had received approval for naturalization but had not yet taken the oath, as interviews and oath ceremonies were halted due to the pandemic. It is estimated that close to 300,000 immigrants were left out of the 2020 presidential election because of delays and closures to USCIS offices during the pandemic, closures that lasted from mid-March to early June. An earlier analysis found that nearly 22% of immigrants who were omitted from the elections were in California. 

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 nationally, creating a backlog of over 730,000 citizenship applications by 2018 which prevented immigrants from naturalizing and exercising their right to vote, and ultimately constructing a “second wall” of barriers to naturalization. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic also negatively affected naturalization rates nationwide. The 2021 State of New American Citizenship Report by Boundless highlighted the effects of the pandemic on states’ naturalization rates. As the pandemic grew, states began to see even higher naturalization backlogs. After USCIS stopped conducting in-person naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies in March 2020, state naturalization rates slowed—California went from 148,765 newly naturalized citizens in 2019, to 116,100 in 2020.

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. To learn more about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. naturalization rates, 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. According to ERI estimates based on 2019 5-year American Community Survey microdata from IPUMS USA, there are approximately 61,500 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients in California. TPS is, however, a short-term temporary status that can be limited to as little as 18 months in some cases. Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) is a similar temporary status; however, it is in the president’s discretion to authorize it. Those granted TPS and DED status can legally reside and work in the U.S.

According to an American Immigration Council factsheet, as of June 2022 the countries with TPS designations are Afghanistan, Burma, Cameroon, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Yemen. In January 2022, thirty-three U.S. Senators urged the Biden Administration to include Guatemala as a TPS country. Guatemalan immigrants and their families have been advocating for Guatemala to be designated with TPS due to the recent environmental crises that have hit the country in the last few years including a severe drought that has caused food insecurity in the region. Additionally, the countries with Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) designations are Liberia and Venezuela. Although TPS was reinstated for immigrants from Haiti, recent immigration enforcement operations against Haitian migrants at the U.S. Southern border have shown light on the persecution Black migrants face when attempting to seek asylum in the U.S.

Once U.S. officials decide conditions in TPS and DED-designated countries are “safe,” immigrants lose their status with an expectation to leave the U.S. The possible termination and temporary nature of these statuses that are largely overlooked in public discussions, creates a sense of instability, or ‘liminal legality,’ a term coined by sociologist Dr. Cecilia Menjivar. Efforts under the Trump administration to end TPS and DED for certain countries were underway; however, litigation temporarily extended these designations for those countries. On, January 20, 2021, President Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to reinstate DED for eligible migrants from Liberia. The temporary nature of these statuses and termination efforts adversely affect not only TPS and DED holders, individuals with rooted U.S. social, familial, and economic ties, but also the households they live in. Across California, 44 percent of the population in households with TPS holders are U.S. citizens according to 2019 estimates based on 2016 American Community Survey data. Providing a path to legal permanent residency for individuals with TPS and DED 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. For updates on TPS and DED litigation read here.

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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