Using ERI’s Data Tool to Promote Naturalization in the U.S.
In the United States, where immigrants make up nearly 14% of the country’s population, naturalization offers a pathway to greater integration and inclusion. There are several benefits realized when gaining U.S. citizenship, including the right to vote, eligibility to run for public office, access to certain government benefits programs and jobs, prioritized sponsorship of immediate family to the U.S., and protection from deportation. Economically, naturalization has consistently been found to increase immigrants’ earnings and wealth over time through improved access to gainful employment and wealth-building tools, such as homeownership. These benefits also have positive impact on the communities where immigrants live, enhancing political representation and bringing greater economic resources through increased spending power, revenue, and tax contributions.
However, despite the benefits associated with naturalization, U.S. citizenship is not equitably accessible given the costly, time intensive, and complex process to become a citizen. Research on pathways to citizenship has shown that immigrants with more limited human capital and in precarious family circumstances face greater barriers in pursuing naturalization. For example, immigrants who speak English “well” or “very well” have more than twice the odds of successfully naturalizing than immigrants who do not speak English at all. There are also evidence that eligible-to-naturalize immigrants with an undocumented family member in the household have more than an 80% lower likelihood of naturalizing, which may be associated with a chilling effect of U.S. immigrant enforcement. These barriers have created disparate naturalization rates across racial/ethnic groups, raising concerns about immigrant inclusion and racial justice.
To address this issue, ERI developed an interactive data mapping tool that analyzes and disaggregates data on the eligible-to-naturalize adult immigrant population in the U.S. and the challenges they may face in gaining U.S. citizenship. This mapping tool allows users to explore different geographies in the United States to learn more about the eligible-to-naturalize immigrant population in those places, including age, race, educational attainment, poverty status, English speaking ability, top places of origin, and top languages spoken at home. By using statistical modeling to predict naturalization outcomes based on observed characteristics, the mapping tool also categorizes eligible-to-naturalize adults into low, medium, and high probability groups for naturalization. This categorization can help policymakers and community organizations working with immigrants to better gauge which groups may need a “nudge” to naturalize compared to those who may need more resources or involved intervention.
Based on ERI’s estimates of the approximately 8.2 million eligible-to-naturalize adults and their probability of naturalization:
- 4%, or 3.2 million people are in the “low probability” category of eligible-to-naturalize adults;
- 2%, or 3.4 million people are in the “medium probability” category; and
- 4%, or 1.7 million people are in the “high probability” category.
The decision and outcome of successfully naturalizing is simultaneously shaped by various factors, including individual characteristics (e.g., English speaking proficiency, age, educational attainment), place-based attributes (e.g., whether one lives in an ethnic enclave and/or immigrant-friendly state), and family dynamics (e.g., living with an undocumented family member, having a family member who has already naturalized). When considering strategies to promote naturalization, it is important to take these differences into account. Notably, English language ability is one of the greatest barriers to naturalization for many eligible immigrants. Therefore, making free or low-cost English language classes available where it’s most needed (i.e., neighborhoods with high shares of eligible-to-naturalize adults with limited English proficiency) is a major step toward improving naturalization outcomes. This is especially important for those who have low probability of naturalization, as they are the most likely to face English barriers. About 3 in 4 eligible-to-naturalize adults with low probability of naturalization do not speak English at least “very well.” In comparison, around 43% and 41% of those with medium and high probabilities of naturalization, respectively, struggle with English proficiency.
More analysis by probability of naturalization can be found, along with the updated interactive map, at https://dornsife.usc.edu/eri/research/map-eligible-to-naturalize-puma-2023/.
Since its inception, this mapping tool has assisted community organizations in improving immigrants’ opportunities to gain U.S. citizenship. By gaining a better understanding of the immigrant population in the areas they serve, advocates have been able to tailor their strategies to meet the specific needs of their communities, including language-appropriate resources and interventions.
“The Equity Research Institute mapping tool provides invaluable insight into the unique challenges community members face to becoming citizens. We will be looking at this data to identify where the highest areas of needs are in our region and where we can make the biggest impact. The greater Houston area is wide and incredibly diverse. The ability to see the data at the neighborhood level allows us to take a data-informed and community-centered approach to ensure that all eligible immigrants have the resources they need to become citizens.”
– Gislaine Williams, Program Officer for Civic Engagement at the Houston Endowment
There are equity concerns when considering access to citizenship as the naturalization process has evolved over time to be more exclusive and difficult. Naturalizing has become costlier, more time intensive, and systematically more challenging for immigrants who lack the resources, skills, and capital to successfully navigate the process–especially immigrants of color. Because citizenship is associated with important social, political, and economic benefits, disparate rates of naturalization have led to uneven immigrant inclusion at the intersection of race. There are tools to bridge this gap, including fee waivers, but accessing these resources can also be daunting and challenging with policy changes and the political climate.
There continues to be important work done by community organizing, nonprofits, and philanthropy groups, such as the Houston Endowment, to equip immigrants with the tools and knowledge to successfully become citizens, all while lowering barriers through advocacy and policies. With ERI’s interactive mapping tool, these advocates can continue their important work with greater understanding of who the eligible-to-naturalize are, the communities they are part of, and what resources may be most needed to help them gain U.S. citizenship.
Acknowledgements: The USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) developed the initial interactive mapping tool with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The California Endowment, the James Irvine Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, and Bank of America. With funding from the Houston Endowment, ERI updated the analysis and interactive mapping tool using the most recent data available.