Naturalization Trends in the United States
Naturalization confers citizenship on foreign nationals with legal permanent resident (LPR) status in the United States, granting immigrants the same important privileges and responsibilities as U.S.-born citizens, including the right to vote. More than 707,000 immigrants naturalized in fiscal year (FY) 2017. This brought the number of naturalized U.S. citizens to nearly 22 million, about half of the overall immigrant population of 44.5 million. From FY 2008 through FY 2017, the annual number of naturalizations has ranged from about 620,000 to slightly more than 1 million, depending on institutional factors such as processing times and backlogs as well as the financial constraints and personal motivations that shape immigrants’ decisions about whether to apply; the annual number of naturalization applications filed has greatly increased since FY 2015, and so too have processing wait times.
In order to become a citizen, applicants must meet a set of requirements outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act. These include completing a period of lawful permanent residence, demonstrating basic proficiency in English and knowledge of U.S. history and government, and passing a background check to prove good moral character. In addition to gaining the right to vote in U.S. elections, naturalized citizens have the right to sponsor immediate family members for immigration, greater access to government benefits and public-sector jobs, and protection from deportation. Naturalization is also associated with improved economic outcomes, such as higher incomes and homeownership.
The term "foreign born" refers to people residing in the United States at the time of the census who were not U.S. citizens at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), refugees and asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.
The terms "immigrants" and "foreign born" are used interchangeably.
This article examines the latest U.S. naturalization data available, including historical trends and socioeconomic characteristics of naturalized citizens. Unless otherwise noted, data on the number and characteristics of foreign nationals who naturalized during FY 2017 are from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
Note: All yearly data on new naturalized citizens are for the federal fiscal year, which runs from October 1 through September 30 of the given year.
Click on the bullet points below for more information:
- Historical Trends
- Naturalization Eligibility
- Country of Birth
- State and City of Residence
- Years in Lawful Permanent Resident Status
- Military Naturalizations
- Socioeconomic Characteristics of Naturalized Citizens
The Naturalization Process
Naturalization—the process by which foreign citizens or nationals take the citizenship of their country of residence—is a multistep process that concludes with a naturalization ceremony during which an immigrant takes an oath of allegiance to the United States. To be eligible for naturalization, an immigrant must be at least 18 years old; have lawful permanent residence (LPR status, also known as a green card) for at least five continuous years (three continuous years if the individual is married to a U.S. citizen); have no criminal record; possess the ability to read, write, and speak simple words and phrases in English; and demonstrate knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.
Some of these requirements may be waived for immigrants who have served in the U.S. military, are disabled, or have lived in the United States for 20 years and are over 50 years of age. Children under the age of 18 with legal permanent resident status can obtain derivative citizenship when the parent naturalizes.
In FY 2017, the most recent year for which data were available at publication, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received 986,851 applications for citizenship and naturalized 707,265 individuals. The number of individuals who naturalized in FY 2017 represented a decrease of 6 percent from FY 2016 (753,060). USCIS denied 83,176 naturalization petitions in FY 2017, a small uptick from the year before (86,033). Applicants can be denied citizenship if they cannot prove the required length of permanent residence, are found to lack allegiance to the United States, are determined to have bad moral character, and/or fail the required English language or American civics test.
The annual number of naturalization applications filed has increased in recent years. They rose by nearly 200,000 between FY 2015 and 2016 (783,062 to 972,151), and FY 2017 saw a small additional increase to 986,851. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign and his administration’s restrictive immigration policies since assuming office have been credited with motivating immigrants to seek citizenship. The number of pending cases also increased substantially, from 518,707 at the end of FY 2016 to 728,301 at the end of FY 2017.
By the end of FY 2017, a large majority of USCIS field offices averaged wait times longer than seven months for a naturalization application to be processed, with some offices averaging as high as 14 to 15 months. The recent increase in applications has contributed to this backlog, but advocates have also accused the Trump administration—as part of its efforts to limit immigration and the benefits available to noncitizens—of intentionally slowing the naturalization process, among other immigration benefits such as legal permanent residency.
Legislation Spurred Naturalizations between 1986-2008
Naturalizations began an upward trend in the late 1990s, spurred in part by federal laws passed in 1986 and 1996 (see Figure 1). Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants received LPR status, which over time increased the pool of immigrants eligible for naturalization. About 70 percent of those who adjusted to LPR status under IRCA were Mexican nationals. Then in 1996, three other federal laws—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)—limited noncitizens’ access to public benefits and legal protections, driving more to apply for naturalization.
Figure 1. New U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents, FY 1980-2017
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, various years), available online.
The 59 percent increase in naturalizations between FY 2007 and FY 2008 (from 660,477 to 1,046,539) was largely the result of naturalization campaigns in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election and an impending increase in naturalization application fees, which took effect on July 30, 2007. After these actions led to an application backlog, USCIS took steps to reduce processing times that successfully brought the number of pending cases down from 1.1 million at the end of FY 2007 to 230,000 in FY 2009 (see USCIS: Backlog in Naturalization Applications Will Take Nearly Three Years to Clear and the MPI brief, Immigration Fee Increases in Context).
Of the 13.2 million LPRs in the United States as of January 2015, 9 million were eligible to naturalize, according to the latest available OIS estimates.
Mexico was the leading country of origin among LPRs eligible to naturalize in 2015, accounting for an estimated 2.7 million or 30 percent. Other top origin countries include China and the Philippines, each with 350,000 or 4 percent; and the Dominican Republic and Cuba, each with 310,000 or 3 percent.
Top states of residence for those eligible to naturalize in 2015 included California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois (see Table 1).
Table 1. Top States of Residence of Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) Eligible to Naturalize, 2015
Source: Bryan Baker, Population Estimates—Lawful Permanent Resident Population in The United States: January 2015 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2019), available online.
Click here for an interactive map from the University of Southern California detailing the eligible-to-naturalize population in the United States.
Of the 707,265 immigrants who naturalized in FY 2017, 17 percent were from Mexico (118,559), followed by 7 percent from India (50,802), 5 percent each from China (37,674) and the Philippines (36,828), and about 4 percent each from the Dominican Republic (29,734) and Cuba (25,961). Nationals of these six countries accounted for 42 percent of all naturalizations. Other leading countries of origin included Vietnam (19,323 or 3 percent), El Salvador (16,941, 2 percent), Colombia (16,184, 2 percent), and Jamaica (15,087, 2 percent) (see Figure 2).
In the decade between FY 2008 and FY 2017, Mexico remained the top country of birth for new naturalized citizens—which it has been since 1994—but it has come to account for a smaller share of annual naturalizations. India, China, and the Philippines also stayed in the top four origin countries during this period, though China overtook the Philippines. At the same time, the share of naturalized citizens from Jamaica increased and pushed Korea out of the top ten origin countries in FY 2017.
Figure 2. Top Ten Countries of Birth for Newly Naturalized Citizens in the United States, FY 2008 and FY 2017
Note: Korea includes both North and South Korea.
Source: DHS, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2017 and 2008, available online.
More than half of new citizens who naturalized in FY 2017 lived in four states: California, New York, Florida, and Texas (see Table 2). With 247 newly naturalized residents, Wyoming had the fewest naturalizations of all states in FY 2017, followed by Montana (347). These top four and bottom two ranking states in terms of naturalized citizens have remained consistent from FY 2008 to FY 2017.
Table 2. Top States of Residence of Newly Naturalized Citizens, FY 2017
Source: DHS, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2017, available online.
Nearly one-third of citizens who naturalized in FY 2017 resided in three metropolitan areas: greater New York City (112,568 or 16 percent), Los Angeles (59,356, 8 percent), and Miami (44,520, 6 percent). These metropolitan areas, together with the greater Washington, DC area (29,682, 4 percent), Chicago (23,044, 3 percent), Boston (22,002, 3 percent), San Francisco (21,352, 3 percent), Riverside and San Bernardino (16,748, 2 percent), and San Diego (16,638, 2 percent) were home to nearly half (49 percent) of all new U.S. citizens in FY 2017.
In FY 2017, the median number of years of residence for newly naturalized citizens (that is, the period between the date when they gained LPR status and when they were naturalized) was eight years. This is a one-year increase over recent years; between FY 2012 and FY 2016, the annual median number of years spent in LPR status was seven. The recent increase may reflect the continuously growing backlog of applications and subsequent processing delays since 2016.
Figure 3. Median Years in Lawful Permanent Resident Status for Persons Naturalized in FY 2017, by Region of Origin
Note: The median time period for naturalization among LPRs born in North America reflects lower than average naturalizations among the Mexican born. For more information, see Mexican Immigrants in the United States.
Source: DHS, Annual Flow Report – U.S. Naturalizations: 2017 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2018), available online.
In general, an immigrant must have resided continuously in the United States as an LPR for five years before becoming eligible to naturalize. Naturalization rates vary by country and region of birth, as does the amount of time individuals spend as LPRs before naturalizing. Median years as an LPR remained constant from FY 2016 to FY 2017 for individuals from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Europe but increased by one year for those from North and South America.
In addition to institutional factors such as growing processing times and security check delays, individual decision-making also plays a role in the median number of years immigrants spend as LPRs before naturalizing. Contributing factors can include delays among potential applicants in filing for naturalization due to their inability to pay the $640 application fee (along with the $85 biometric fee) or due to challenges in attaining the required level of English language proficiency. Immigrants may also wait to naturalize because of their perceptions and attitudes about the tradeoffs of gaining U.S. citizenship, which may involve losing rights and/or property in the origin country.
The promise of an expedited path to citizenship has long been used to encourage immigrants to enlist in the U.S. military. In FY 2017, 6,883 foreign-born members of the U.S. military naturalized, representing a 23 percent decrease in military naturalizations relative to FY 2016, when 8,885 servicemembers gained citizenship.
During peacetime, noncitizens are eligible to naturalize after one year of military service. However, Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act also grants the president the power to designate periods of conflict during which noncitizen servicemembers are eligible for immediate naturalization. In July 2002, President George W. Bush designated September 11, 2001 as the start of a period of hostilities, and this designation remains in place. As a result, noncitizen military personnel serving on or after that date have been eligible for expedited citizenship.
Between the start of FY 2002 (October 1, 2001) and the end of FY 2018, 129,587 foreign-born members of the U.S. armed services became citizens, including more than 11,000 who naturalized while serving overseas or aboard U.S. Navy ships. The latest available data show that between FY 2008 and FY 2018, close to 90 percent of the 7,204 overseas military naturalizations took place in five countries: Iraq (1,840 individuals), Japan (1,651), South Korea (1,038), Afghanistan (1,017), and Germany (883).
Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest Program
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense authorized the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program to fill key recruitment shortages by allowing certain noncitizens with in-demand skills, including in health care and critical languages, to join the military in exchange for expedited U.S. citizenship. Coupled with the 2002 designation of a period of hostilities, MANVI recruits initially enjoyed a relatively quick path to citizenship after enlisting. However, heightened vetting procedures introduced starting in September 2016 have created substantial delays in the naturalization process for noncitizen recruits. Since September 2016, MANVI recruits have been subject to background checks as intensive as those for Top Secret security clearances; background checks for LPRs were similarly augmented in 2017.
These and other enhanced security measures appear to be affecting the number of military servicemembers applying to naturalize. In each of the last three quarters of FY 2017, more than 3,000 immigrant members of the military applied for naturalization; by comparison, in each of the first two quarters of FY 2019, less than 1,000 did so. Military naturalization applications were also denied at higher rate (17 percent) than were civilian applications (11 percent) in the first two quarters of FY 2019.
Click here to read a policy brief on the role of noncitizens in the U.S. military and recent changes in military naturalizations.
The following data show the socioeconomic characteristics of all naturalized immigrants in the United States as of calendar year 2017 and are from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).
As of 2017, nearly 22 million foreign-born individuals were naturalized U.S. citizens, representing 49 percent of the nation’s 44.5 million immigrants, according to 2017 ACS estimates.
Naturalized citizens are, on average, better educated than immigrants who have not become citizens. In 2017, 36 percent of naturalized adults (ages 25 and older) possessed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 26 percent of noncitizen and 32 percent of native-born adults. At the same time, 19 percent of naturalized immigrant adults had not completed high school—a smaller share than among noncitizens (37 percent) but a larger one than among the U.S. born (9 percent).
Naturalized citizens also fare comparatively well on important economic outcomes. In 2017, the median earnings for naturalized men and women ($52,300 and $42,500, respectively) were higher than median earnings for noncitizens ($35,700 for men and $28,500 for women) and on par with those of U.S.-born individuals ($52,300 and $42,000). Median household income for naturalized citizens ($66,000) was higher than for households headed by both noncitizens ($47,300) and the U.S. born ($60,800).
Finally, naturalized citizens have notably higher homeownership rates than noncitizens. Similar to the native born, 66 percent of naturalized immigrants lived in owned housing units in 2017, compared to 35 percent of noncitizens.
Click here for an MPI report examining the economic effects of citizenship for immigrants in the United States.
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