Impeding or Accelerating Assimilation?

Immigration Enforcement and Its Impact on Naturalization Patterns

Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

July 23, 2019

Project Summary

Naturalization—the process by which a foreign citizen is granted citizenship in a host country—is the cornerstone of immigrant assimilation. When allowed to work effectively, the naturalization process opens opportunities to immigrants and improves their economic outcomes. Yet the rate at which immigrants naturalize is affected by multiple factors, such as how similar the immigrant’s country of origin is to the US and personal characteristics like education level. It is also impacted by immigration enforcement because immigrants may be deterred from seeking citizenship if increased enforcement makes them feel unsafe revealing information to begin the naturalization process. This research examines the effect of immigration enforcement inside the US rather than at the border on naturalization rates.

Understanding patterns in naturalization is essential because of the crucial role it plays in migrants’ economic assimilation, as well as the representation it affords them. Immigrants that become citizens earn higher incomes, have lower poverty rates, and gain the ability to sponsor more of their family for visas and legal residency. Slowing or reducing naturalization diminishes the cultural and economic integration of immigrants into the US. This may limit their economic success in the US and reduce the benefits that immigrants create for the economy overall.

The researchers examine how differences in immigration enforcement at the city-level determine the effects of enforcement on naturalization rates. Key findings of the research include:

  • More intense immigration enforcement lowers the likelihood of naturalization by twelve percentage points.
  • Among those who choose to naturalize, increased immigration enforcement delays the timing of naturalization by three months.
  • These effects impact all migrants who could become citizens, including legal permanent residents.

These findings reveal that a tougher immigration environment might further exclude migrants from achieving economic assimilation and from participating in the political process, which will shape their future and that of their families.

In light of this research, policymakers should consider the trade-offs that increasing immigration enforcement entails: remaining tough on immigration may prevent or delay immigrants from choosing to naturalize and so slow their integration into American society.