Naturalization Numbers Are Going Up. How Can Citizenship Be Going Down?

by Peter Spiro

It’s true, as Alex and Jon point out: the number of immigrants seeking naturalization have in effect gone through the roof. The statistics look dramatic: the volume of applications from the mid-90s onward dwarf figures from earlier decades. More than 1.3 million individuals applied for citizenship in FY 2007. That’s more in one year than the entire decade of the 1960s.

There are a couple of explanations consistent with the proposition that citizenship and national identity are losing their hold. The most prosaic involve bureaucratic oddities, like the switch to hi-tech green cards in 1996 which forced all permanent residents into INS offices. Then there was 9/11. The clear explanation for the recent spike: a big increase in naturalization fees (from $330 to $595). If you were on the fence, better to do it now and save yourself the money. Applications spiked in June 2007, with more than 135,000 applications that month. By March 2008, the total was below 50,000 for the month. Naturalization rates (that is, the proportion of eligible resident aliens who secure naturalization) is up over the past decade though still lower than it was before 1980.

But that still leaves begging why anyone naturalizes at any price. Some clearly do it on the old model, as a rite of serious passage marking the transfer of affiliation from one state to another, for love of their new country. Or to vote. That’s how the MSM continues to portray naturalization.

But I think that an increasing number of natz applicants are doing so for defensive and instrumental reasons. There is anecdotal evidence that many applicants are looking to secure the admission of their parents or married children (permanent residents can’t) or to avoid the chronic backlogs in other family preference admissions. Citizenship is insurance against deportation. There are some reports of individuals naturalizing so that they can go back home (see this study by sociologists Audrey Singer and Greta Gilbertson). In those cases, naturalization actually facilitates transnationality. So citizenship is still worth several hundred dollars and the hassle of dealing with USCIS.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with instrumental naturalization (or other forms of rational action). But it doesn’t fit the standard narratives, and the increase in those acquiring citizenship may not evidence a correlative resurgence in the institution of citizenship.

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