Naturalization numbers and beyond

by Jonathan Weinberg

Peter suggested in a post last night that while there’s been a recent resurgence in naturalization applications, we shouldn’t see that as a resurgence in “the institution of citizenship” because many of those applications may have been instrumentally motivated. There are two things wrong with that, I think. First, near as I can tell, naturalization applications never weakened in the first place. Second, they’ve always been substantially instrumentally motivated.

It’s easy to think that there’s been a big drop in naturalization numbers. Peter writes in his book that “the proportion of foreign-born residents who naturalize has been steadily decreasing, from 63.6 percent in 1970 to 37.4 percent in 2000.” If we adjust those numbers to exclude from the calculation aliens who are here illegally or otherwise are not legally eligible to naturalize, 59% of eligible aliens today are citizens. The comparable figure has been higher at some points in the past. But that doesn’t show that naturalization has declined since those times; here’s why.

Immigrants, natch, are more likely to have naturalized the longer they have lived here. The citizen component of the immigrant population is highest in times of low immigration, when much of the nation’s immigrant population entered long before; it’s lowest after immigration surges, when more immigrants have more recently arrived. In 1920, thus, the country had just seen a major wave of immigration; moreover, the newest immigrants were poorer, less-educated, and slower to naturalize than those who had come before. The result: only 49% of the country’s legal immigrants were naturalized in 1920. After several decades of sharp restrictions on immigration, with assimilation of long-term immigrants, that percentage moved to a high of 79% in 1950. Increasing immigration after that pushed the number back down; just after IRCA added millions of newly-legalized immigrants, the percentage of the legal foreign-born population who were citizens dropped to a low of 38%. It’s been rising since then.

So if we want to learn about immigrants’ propensity to naturalize over time, it’s not helpful to measure the fraction of the total immigrant population who have naturalized at any given moment in history; we do better to look at the percentage of an immigrant cohort who become citizens within a set number of years. (See here for a longer explanation.) In 1920, toward the end of an immigration wave comparable in size to today’s, only 31% of those who had arrived 10-14 years before had become citizens. Twenty-five years ago, in 1983, a comparable 30% of those who had entered ten years earlier had naturalized. But in 2005, fully 50% of those who had arrived ten years earlier had become citizens. That’s not decline followed by resurgence; I’m not aware of any indication from the cohort data that there ever was a decline.

And as for people naturalizing for instrumental reasons: Sure. But so did early-twentieth-century immigrants. Those folks didn’t step out of the pages of The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n: idealistic, severing ties to the homeland, eschewing circular migration, and emotionally unconditionally committed to the U.S. Well, there were people like that, but not everyone was. There was a lot of circular migration (more than today), a lot of transnationalism, and (because the immigrants were human) there was naturalization for instrumental reasons. Nothing new to see there.

On dual nationality: though Peter really really is correct that dual nationality is more important today than it used to be, it’s important not to overplay that. I can sorta see the argument that it dilutes American identity for folks here within the U.S. community also to be active participants in some other polity (though Cristina makes a powerful argument to the contrary). But — again, as Cristina points out — exactly how is it a problem if there are folks outside the U.S., and outside the bounds of meaningful participation in our community, who get to wear the label “American”? So what? It may well be (and I think this is the point of Peter’s mention of the LDS and Episcopal churches) that folks who feel intense affiliation to their organizations are less likely to want affiliation with parallel organizations. Thus, if U.S. citizens uniformly felt huge affinity with the U.S., they’d be less likely to move away in the first place. But the causation there is running in the opposite direction.

Further, while it’s clear that the scope of dual citizenship is greater now, it’s important not to minimize its sweep a hundred years ago. Peter wrote yesterday: “Many immigrants went home, but rules against dual nationality backstopped leaky naturalization rules to keep the community coherent.” But did they? State Department rules provided for the withholding of diplomatic protection for folks deemed to have gone over to the other side; a 1907 statute created a presumption against protection for citizens who took up residence abroad. But the presumption was easily defeated, and there’s at least some authority that the expatriate dual nationals, deprived of protection, nonetheless remained U.S. citizens — which mean that they could not only return here as citizens, see, e.g., Camardo v. Tillinghast, 29 F.2d 527 (1st Cir. 1928), but could pass U.S. citizenship to their children born abroad. (Before 1934, the only requirements for jus sanguinis transmission of citizenship were that the parent have resided in the U.S. at some point in his life and possess a Y chromosome. The child citizen did not need to travel to the U.S. at any point.) The institution of citizenship survived.

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