Naturalization brings a variety of benefits: Naturalized citizens are able to vote, take federal job positions, gain access to an American passport that enables more freedom to travel, gain increased protection from deportation, and sponsor other family members for a visa. Naturalized citizens are also economically better off given that their labor market access improves.
But over the years, naturalization rates in the United States have been on the decline. One explanation for this phenomenon is the rising costs associated with naturalization. In 1989, the naturalization application had a fee of $60 (120 in 2017 dollars). But today, the naturalization fee hovers around $725.
A recent study led by Stanford University's Immigration Policy Lab (in partnership with several organizations, including the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Office for New Americans, and New York Community Trust) suggests that these rising costs act as a deterrent to naturalization for those who cannot afford it. Lead researchers Jens Hainmueller and Michael Hotard found that low-income immigrants who were provided fee vouchers to cover application costs were 41 percent more likely to apply for citizenship.
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The study looked at two groups: eight hundred sixty-three low-income immigrants who made, on average, $19,000—just enough to disqualify them from an application fee waiver; and 1,760 low-income immigrants who made, on average, $7,500—low enough to make them eligible for the fee waiver.
Among the waiver-less group, researchers sorted 863 registrants into a lottery to win free vouchers for the application costs.
Three hundred thirty-six of the 863 registrants in this first group won fee vouchers. Seventy-eight percent of those registrants who did win vouchers applied for naturalization. Of those who did not win a fee voucher, only 37 percent still applied for naturalization. This part of the study saw a 41 percent point increase in applying for naturalization as a result of lowering cost barriers.
The second group featured people who made $7,500 on average, and were thus already eligible for a fee waiver. This group faced "no financial barriers to naturalize." Instead, this part of the study was designed to test how to overcome non-financial barriers to naturalization.
Members of this group were split into five smaller groups that were subject to a variety of different nudges designed to encourage them to apply for naturalization. These five nudges were one or a combination of the following: a letter to remind them of their waived fee eligibility, a text, a MetroCard transportation pass, and a call to schedule an appointment.
None of these nudges worked in increasing the rates of applying much higher than 44 percent. Such a result may indicate that there are other constraints to naturalization for very low-income folks.
Hainmueller, who is from Germany and recently naturalized himself, says that he understands why these nudges did not work very well.
"There are definitely other hurdles that are going on." Hainmueller said about why the nudged group exhibited low turnout rates for naturalization application. "There are informational hurdles. There are hurdles in terms of time. Lack of information, lack of ability to navigate the form. Filling out the form can be quite daunting and complicated."
Hotard agrees: "It's not necessarily a financial costs. There's time costs. And just because you are nudging someone, reminding someone to do it, that's not necessarily providing them any way to overcome those other costs."
To increase naturalization rates, Hainmueller and Hotard proposed that one solution to this problem might be increasing the range of immigrants who are eligible for a fee waiver. As illustrated by the first group, those who the government thought made enough to pay the fee on their own were largely motivated by a fee voucher.
The second solution is providing information and communication middlemen for immigrants. The results of the second group show that, even when finances are not the problem, issues of time, understanding, and ability may keep immigrants from naturalizing.