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					       , Multicultural Center Prague, April 2005

   Naturalization in the United States: Who, Why, and How
                         Michael Watsula

The United States of America is known as a country of immigrants. For the majority of its
history, the United States has not put restrictions on the type or individual characteristics of
a prospective immigrant, except for country of origin. Because of this, hundreds of
thousands of people enter the United States each year with the intent of making America
their permanent home. However, only a portion of these people decide to become official
United States citizens. This paper will focus on possible explanations for variances in
immigrant naturalization in the United States. As we will see, there are many differing
opinions on why immigrants decide to naturalize. Some of these ideas come from the
United States government such as the official Guide to Naturalization, while others come
from statistical research on the subject.

Requirements for Naturalization in the United States
                   •   5 years with permanent residence status
                   •   No trips abroad over 6 months in length during those 5 years
                   •   30 total months spent in the U.S. over those 5 years
                   •   3 months of residence in current state or district
                   •   No criminal convictions
                   •   Proficiency in reading and writing English
                   •   Knowledge of U.S. Civics

         In the United States naturalization carries with it numerous benefits as well as
extensive new responsibilities when one becomes a citizen. As seen through statistics, more
and more immigrants are opting for these benefits and responsibilities in recent years. For
example, in the 14 years since 1990 the United States has naturalized more than 300,000
immigrants annually 13 times. This only occurred twice during the previous 82 years. In
fact, 463,000 immigrants were naturalized in 2003 alone. Possibly the most astonishing
statistic is that this number does not represent the full demand for naturalization. On top of
the 463,000 naturalizations in 2003, there was a backlog of 650,000 naturalization
applications. These same statistics, provided by the Department of Citizenship and
Immigration Services (the former INS) place the approximate rate of applications being
denied at around 10%. Given these impressive statistics, the next step is to explain why
some immigrants naturalize and others do not. As mentioned earlier, there are differences
in opinion over the reasons immigrants naturalize.
        In A Guide to Naturalization, the U.S. government, through the Department of
Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), informs potential citizenship applicants about
the naturalization process as well as their rights and responsibilities after naturalization. If
an immigrant wishes to naturalize in the United States, this document serves as his/her
handbook throughout the process.
        On page 3 of the most recent Guide to Naturalization (revised 2/2004), the CIS lists
the benefits and responsibilities associated with becoming a U.S. citizen. According to the
Guide, “some of the most important” reasons to naturalize are gaining the right to vote, the
travel possibilities afforded by a U.S. passport, and governmental protection at home and
abroad. The Guide also reminds potential applicants of their new responsibilities such as
serving the nation (militarily), relinquishing the previous citizenship, serving on a jury, and
participating in the political process. The reasons mentioned by the Guide to Naturalization
represent assumptions made by the U.S. government. Recently, sociologists have sought to
use statistical analysis to formulate their own reasons for naturalization. As it turns out,
these “scientific” explanations fail to correspond with the opinions and assumptions of the
U.S. government. However, as descriptions of the statistical research will show, these
findings do not contradict the ideas put forth by the Guide. Instead, they offer additional
possible explanations for naturalization phenomena.
        Most, if not all, leading sociologists studying naturalization take a rational actor
approach towards studying an immigrant’s reasons for naturalizing. This approach is taken
in part because it allows for legitimate statistical analysis of the topic. The rational actor
approach holds that when an immigrant is deciding whether or not to pursue naturalization
he/she will examine the benefits and the costs of the process. If the benefits outweigh the
costs, then the immigrant will proceed through the naturalization process. For the purposes
of the research that will be mentioned, immigrants are said to be acting rationally whenever
they weigh the costs and benefits and act accordingly.
        Surprisingly, there was not much general analytical research done on the topic of
reasons for naturalization. Most research tended to focus on immigrants of a specific
nationality and therefore those conclusions cannot be readily applied to an entire immigrant
cohort. Studies done by Jasso and Rosenzweig as well as Yang offer insight into the
general reasons immigrants choose to naturalize in the U.S.
        Jasso and Rosenzweig were some of the first to complete a statistical study which
resulted in concrete correlations between certain characteristics of immigrants and their
propensity to naturalize. They observed and studied the cohort of immigrants which entered
in 1971 for 10 years. They found that one of the main reasons immigrants naturalized was
in order to sponsor the immigration of family members. Under U.S. immigration law, a U.S.
citizen has a much greater opportunity to sponsor relatives for immigration than does a
permanent resident. Jasso and Rosenzweig found the highest percentage of naturalized
persons to be spouses of siblings of citizens. This is significant because this group is the

least likely to have family members already living in America. The inverse was also true.
Siblings, the group most likely to have their family already living in the U.S. had the lowest
propensity to naturalize (Jasso and Rosenzweig 1990). They then expanded on this research
in order to determine what they call the “immigration multiplier.” Through statistical
analysis of the same immigrant cohort, Jasso and Rosenzweig were able to deduce that
immigrants who gained permanent resident status though employment based visas
sponsored 1.2 additional immigrants within the next ten years (Jasso and Rosenzweig 1986).
Thus, we can assume that family reunification is an important factor in the decision to
         Jasso and Rosenzweig also found that the existence of English as an official
language in the origin country, as well as Voice of America broadcasts in the origin country
are significant predictors of naturalization. This implies that immigrants who have a higher
knowledge of the realities of life in America are more likely to naturalize because they are
more likely to find success in the U.S. However, despite the statistical significance, the
connection between U.S. government produced media and the propensity to naturalize
seems dubious at best. Another economic factor with significance toward naturalization
rates is the GDP of the origin country. Immigrants from poorer nations were much more
likely to naturalize than those from more affluent nations (Jasso and Rosenzweig 1990).
         Studying data from the 1980 U.S. Census, Phillip Yang expanded on the research of
Jasso and Rosenzweig. He used the same method of statistical analysis with additional
variables. Yang’s results confirm the previous findings of Jasso and Rosenzweig. So called
“cultural assimilation” factors, such as language skills, kinship ties, and a strong ethnic
community are all significant determinants of the propensity of an immigrant to naturalize
(Yang 1994). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the more integrated an immigrant
is into American society; the more likely he/she is to naturalize.
         Yang’s findings also support the role of economic factors in determining
naturalization tendencies. In Yang’s study, poorer immigrants were more likely to
naturalize. Additionally, his research backed up Jasso and Rosenzweig’s findings that
immigrants from poorer countries naturalize more frequently as well. An additional factor
is the distance of the country of origin from America. Yang’s data shows that the further
away one’s native country, the more likely one is to naturalize. This fact has a decidedly
economic explanation. The farther away one moved, the more economically costly it will
be to return (Yang 1994).
         Yang’s final contributions come in the form of demographic characteristics that
play a role in naturalization. He found that women are more likely to naturalize than men.
Additionally, he discovered that the relationship between age and naturalization is
curvilinear. There is a positive association which peaks at middle age and then turns
negative as the immigrant ages (Yang 1994).

         Taken together, the work of these three sociologists gives us a picture of
immigrants’ reasons for naturalization. Interestingly, this picture is different from the one
painted by the CIS. While the department of Citizenship and Immigration Services
contends that the most important reasons to naturalize are voting rights and obtaining a U.S.
passport. It is hard to reconcile the statistical findings mentioned above with these claims.
The research mentioned here has shown that immigrant’s reasons for naturalizing are based
either on economic considerations or the intent to reunify their family. Although
immigrants, especially Hispanics, have been increasing their political clout in recent years,
none of the aforementioned factors offers a correlation to a desire of voting rights as
mentioned in the Guide. For example, there is no explanation involving the desire to vote
that would explain why siblings of immigrants naturalize less frequently than spouses.
While it seems difficult to reconcile the differences of propensities to naturalize among
different types of immigrants with the desire for political opportunities, it should be noted
that the statistical studies mentioned did not test for a correlation between desire for
political power and desire for naturalization. Therefore, at this time an all-inclusive list of
factors which determine an immigrant’s desire for naturalization is unattainable.
         Given the data currently available, we are left with differences in opinion between
sociologists and the CIS. However, there is currently a large scale research project which
aims to further research in this area. Since its inception in 2003 the New Immigrant Survey
( has been systematically surveying immigrants on a variety of
issues including many which deal with naturalization. Once these immigrant cohorts gain
the ability to naturalize the question of why some immigrants desire citizenship while
others do not may be answered more completely.

Jasso, Guillermina and Rosenzweig, Mark R. “Family Reunification and the Immigration
        Multiplier: US Immigration Law, Origin-Country Conditions, and the
        Reproduction of Immigrants.” Demography, Vol. 23, No. 3. 1986.
Jasso, Guillermina and Rosenzweig, Mark R. The New Chosen People: Immigrants in the
        United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 1990.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2003.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. A Guide to Naturalization. February, 2004 ed.
        Department of Homeland Security.
Yang, Phillip Q. “Explaining Immigrant Naturalization.” International Migration Review,
        Vol. 28, No. 3. 1994.


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