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Become a citizen, earn more?

Approximately 30,000 immigrants in the Philadelphia area are eligible to apply for US citizenship, and a national group is encouraging them to do so. The…


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New campaign encourages immigrants to apply for citizenship

Approximately 30,000 immigrants in the Philadelphia area are eligible to apply for US citizenship, and a national group is encouraging them to do so. The Cities for Citizenship campaign and its partners are spotlighting the issue this week in observance of Citizenship Day on September 17.

The initiative emphasizes the economic payoff in becoming a citizen. Research by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California shows that immigrants who naturalize see an average 8-11 percent increase in earnings. The payoff exists even when controlling for immigrants’ English language fluency and other factors known to influence wages. A report issued by the White House Task Force on New Americans earlier this year also emphasized this “citizenship wage premium,” and highlighted ways in which the federal government is working to promote naturalization.

To date, nearly 20 cities have signed on to the Cities for Citizenship campaign, including Philadelphia and Reading. The campaign is supported by Citi, the multinational bank.  

“Citizenship is an economic asset that enables low-income immigrants to build more stable economic futures,” said Bob Annibale of Citi, in a press release for the campaign. “We believe that building a national identity must go hand-in-hand with building a strong financial identity,” added Annibale, who is Global Director of Citi Community Development.

The campaign is focusing on immigrants who are already legal permanent residents, commonly referred to as green-card holders. To be eligible to apply for citizenship, individuals must typically have had permanent resident status for at least five years, be currently living in the United States, and meet other criteria. There are approximately 8.8 million such immigrants nationwide.

Experts cite a variety of reasons that immigrants may hesitate to apply for citizenship. One factor is cost. Applying for citizenship costs $680, including the application itself as well as an additional fee for biometrics (formerly known as fingerprinting).

In some cases, immigrants can obtain a fee waiver that exempts them from paying the application fee. To apply for a waiver, applicants who are low-income, receiving public benefits, or meet other criteria may fill out a Fee Waiver request form with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Starting this fall, applicants will also be able to pay the naturalization fee using a credit card, which will effectively enable immigrants to spread their payment over a period of months.

Cost is not the only factor that may delay naturalization. Some prospective applicants are concerned about the English and civics tests required as part of naturalization. In part to ally such fears, USCIS has created an online Citizenship Resource Center with multilingual study materials.

Other immigrants may hesitate to become US citizens because their countries of origin do not permit dual nationality, and they are fearful of losing assets from their home countries, such as a retirement pension or property owned abroad. 

The final reason for hesitation is less often discussed. It is deeply personal and often emotional. Two Rutgers University Law students discovered as much when they interviewed nearly three dozen Latino immigrants about their attitudes toward naturalization.

Students Ray Mateo and Bridgit Cusato-Rosa interviewed 34 Dominican immigrants living in New York and New Jersey.  As recounted in a Rutgers newsletter, in addition to concerns about the cost or difficulty in applying for citizenship, many of the interviewees “expressed some anxiety over identity and ambivalence about ‘feeling American.’”

From this perspective, naturalization rates might improve if immigrants did not perceive that acquiring US citizenship required them to relinquish a core part of their identity. 

In a field that often approaches naturalization as simply a logistical problem to be solved, the students’ findings were notable – so much so that they were featured as co-authors in their Rutgers professor’s resulting article, “Why Don’t They Naturalize? Voices from the Dominican Community.”

Regardless of the factors that may encourage or hinder an immigrant in applying for US citizenship, most who do naturalize view it as a momentous step. Citizenship ceremonies often bring tears amidst camera flashes and proud smiles from new Americans. As this emotional public service announcement from Catholic Charities urges, “Cambia Tu Vida.” Change your life. Become a citizen.

It’s a message that campaign organizers are hoping is heard in 30,000 homes this Citizenship Day.


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