Making Citizenship an Organizing Principle of the US Immigration System

Report from Center for Migration Studies

An Analysis of How and Why to Broaden Access to Permanent Residence and Naturalization for New Americans



This paper proposes that the United States treat naturalization not as the culmination of a long and uncertain individual process, but as an organizing principle of the US immigration system and its expectation for new Americans. It comes at a historic inflection point, following the chaotic departure of one of the most nativist administrations in US history and in the early months of a new administration whose executive orders, administrative actions, and legislative proposals augur an entirely different view of immigrants and immigration.

The paper examines two main ways that the Biden-Harris administration’s immigration agenda can be realized – by expanding access to permanent residence and by increasing naturalization numbers and rates. First, it proposes administrative and, to a lesser degree, legislative measures that would expand the pool of eligible-to-naturalize immigrants. Second, it identifies three underlying factors – financial resources, English language proficiency, and education – that strongly influence naturalization rates. It argues that these factors must be addressed, in large part, outside of and prior to the naturalization process. In addition, it provides detailed estimates of populations with large eligible-to-naturalize numbers, populations that naturalize at low rates, and populations with increasing naturalization rates. It argues that the administration’s immigration strategy should prioritize all three groups for naturalization.

The paper endorses the provisions of the US Citizenship Act that would place undocumented and temporary residents on a path to permanent residence and citizenship, would reduce family- and employment-based visa backlogs, and would eliminate disincentives and barriers to permanent residence. It supports the Biden-Harris administration’s early executive actions and proposes additional measures to increase access to permanent residence and naturalization. It also endorses and seeks to inform the administration’s plan to improve and expedite the naturalization process and to promote naturalization.

The paper’s major findings regarding the eligible-to-naturalize population include the following:

  • In 2019, about 74 percent, or 23.1 million, of the 31.2 million immigrants (that were eligible for naturalization) had naturalized.
  • Three states – Indiana, Arizona, and Texas – had naturalization rates of 67 percent, well below the national average of 74 percent.
  • Fresno, California had the lowest naturalization rate (58 percent) of the 25 metropolitan (metro) areas with the largest eligible-to-naturalize populations, followed by Phoenix at 66 percent and San Antonio and Austin at 67 percent.
  • Four cities in California had rates of 52 to 58 percent – Salinas, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Santa Maria-Santa Barbara.
  • McAllen, Laredo, and Brownsville had the lowest naturalization rates in Texas.
  • Immigrants from Japan had the lowest naturalization rate (47 percent) by country of origin, followed by four countries in the 60 to 63 percent range – Mexico, Canada, Honduras, and the United Kingdom.
  • Guatemala and El Salvador each had rates of 67 percent.
  • Median household income was $25,800, or 27 percent, higher for the naturalized population, compared to the population that had not naturalized (after an average of 23 years in the US).
  • In the past 10 years, naturalization rates for China and India have fallen, and rates for Mexico and Central America have increased (keeping duration of residence constant).

In short, the paper provides a roadmap of policy measures to expand the eligible-to-naturalize population, and the factors and populations that the Biden-Harris administration should prioritize to increase naturalization rates, as prerequisite to the full integration and participation of immigrants, their families, and their descendants in the nation’s life.