Sustaining the Naturalization Myth

Sustaining the Naturalization Myth

As is true every July 4th, many of this holiday weekend’s papers contained stories celebrating naturalization ceremonies. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts 150 public naturalization ceremonies this week, in which almost 20,000 naturalization applicants are sworn in as citizens.) These stories – examples of which can be found here, here, here, and here – usually toe the line of naturalization as a matter of political rebirth, in the old tradition of immigrant assimilation. Profiled immigrants almost uniformly express a love for their new country and an eagerness to participate as citizens, often highlighting their capacity as citizens to vote.

The reports are obviously significant beyond what they predictably report. In her elegant book Democracy and the Foreigner (which ties together sources as disparate as The Wizard of Oz and Shane to the Book of Ruth and Rousseau), political scientist Bonnie Honig describes how naturalization rites actualize our conception of the American nation. “With a hope and a prayer and an oath,” the ceremonies “testify to the fundamental consentworthiness of the regime by symbolically representing the consent that is effectively unattainable for native-born citizens of a liberal regime.” In other words, immigrants get to do what many native-born Americans would like to do, affirmatively assenting to the great social-contractarian project that is America.

I wonder, though, if this ritual reporting on the ritual of naturalization isn’t starting to disconnect from its reality. This is true on both sides of the exchange. On the government’s side, the reception is otherwise hardly uplifting. Applying for citizenship involves bureaucratic hassles and mounting expenses. Dealing with the notoriously inefficient immigration authorities is often unpleasant and can involve years-long delays. Would those naturalization ceremonies look quite so uplifting if they showed oath takers forking over $400 money orders by way of application fees?

On the applicant side, the reality is increasingly one of instrumental naturalization. More immigrants, first of all, are failing to naturalize at all – even though the numbers have been up dramatically since the mid-1990s, naturalization rates have fallen by more than a third since 1970. Among those who do naturalize, many are acquiring citizenship as a defensive move, to insulate themselves against the possibility of deportation, however remote that prospect may be for most. Some may be concerned about benefits eligibility or the advantages of citizenship for purposes of securing the admission into the US of family members. (For an interesting survey of reasons for naturalization among Mexicans in Chicago, see pages 4-6 of the study linked here.) Others are doing it just to get the passport and to avoid the complications for resident aliens of leaving and reentering the country. In this last respect, naturalization facilitates transnationality. Many and perhaps most naturalization applicants now retain their original nationality even as they naturalize (19 out of the top 20 immigrant sending states accept dual nationality), maintaining strong ties to their homelands. That hardly jibes with the trope of assimilation and political rebirth.

This all isn’t to condemn those who acquire U.S. citizenship in the absence of strong affective ties (nor to diminish the experience of those who have found refuge in the United States from persecution or other extreme hardship, and who emotionally embrace their new country). There is a long history of at least partially instrumental motivations for naturalization, although it has historically marked an important point along the assimilationist path and has not been tolerant of retained ties to homeland polities. But the fact is that nothing can be done about it. Motivations can’t be policed in this context. If barriers are raised, there will be fewer takers. There is no pragmatic tool for reducing dual citizenship (even if we had cause to). The changing face of naturalization is inexorably reflecting larger trends in transnational attachment, beyond the ken of policymakers, trends which suggest the erosion of citizenship as a reflection of strong national community.

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