The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants

The Importance of Naturalization

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Caroline B. Brettell
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Clearly, at the heart of many of these discussions of the civic and political engagement of immigrants is the issue of naturalization, not only in terms of access to the political sphere but also in encouraging or emboldening people to use the voice that citizenship affords them. The cost and length of time that characterize the naturalization process can act as a barrier for low-income applicants,47 while the fear of passing the language and civic knowledge exam is perceived as an obstacle for those with low education or limited language proficiency. Figuring out how to register to vote is also a problem. While some scholars argue that one can be involved in politics without being a citizen,48 or that involving non-citizen immigrants in public debates about local issues (a citizenship of practice rather than just judicial status) is an important foundation for political incorporation in the future,49 others argue forcefully that naturalization/citizenship is vital to full participation—i.e., that this should be the primary end goal. Irene Bloemraad and Alicia Sheares conclude that empirical evidence, albeit limited, “suggests that naturalized immigrants are more politically active than noncitizen immigrants, and that foreign-born citizens participate somewhat less or about the same as native-born citizens, with variation by country of origin and country of residence.”50

It is worth noting that the work of political sociologist Irene Bloemraad on this topic is both insightful and innovative. In her book Becoming a Citizen, she compares the acquisition of citizenship and well as rates of political participation in the United States and Canada, focusing on populations of Vietnamese and Portuguese origins.51 She argues that Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism and integration facilitates greater immigrant political incorporation. She also examines the role of community organizations in facilitating the political and civic visibility and influence of immigrants, an issue I return to below. Bloemraad offers a comprehensive model of structured mobilization, arguing that political incorporation is a social process of mobilization by family, friends, local leaders, and community organizations. This process is embedded in “an institutional context shaped by government policies of diversity and newcomer settlement.”52 This suggests that reforms aimed at achieving greater participation should work from both the bottom up and the top down and that truly comprehensive immigration reform should include community-level projects of integration and incorporation into civic and political life.53

Above all, the importance of naturalization and citizenship to civic and political inclusion has led U.S. scholars to reaffirm (in what is today a contested issue) the significance of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to supporting birthright citizenship. But as Mary Waters and Marisa Pi­neau observe, from a comparative perspective,

naturalization rates in the United States lag behind other countries that receive substantial numbers of immigrants. The overall level of citizenship among working age immigrants (15–64 years old) who have been living in the United States for at least 10 years is 50 percent. After adjustments to account for the undocumented population in the United States, a group that is barred by law from citizenship, the naturalization rate among U.S. immigrants rises slightly but is still well below many European countries and far lower than other traditional receiving countries such as Australia and Canada. This is surprising since the vast majority of immigrants, when surveyed, report a strong desire to become a U.S. citizen.54

The authors argue that the greatest barrier to higher naturalization rates is less an absence of interest or the challenges of bureaucracy than “the process by which individuals translate their motivation to naturalize into action.” In general, scholars are troubled by the dearth of clear explanations for low naturalization rates although they acknowledge, as Roberto Suro did,55 that those who have travelled farther to come to the United States have higher rates than those who come from neighboring countries (such as Mexico and Canada) and who may remain involved in the civic and political life of their home countries as an alternative.

Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren provide a recent entry into this debate.56 They demonstrate a powerful connection between naturalization and the integration and success of immigrants. They outline numerous efforts on the part of the Trump administration to make access to naturalization more difficult, and they suggest that eliminating birthright citizenship would “create a permanent class of U.S.-born denizens in the future.”57 In other words, increasing barriers to political and civic belonging is harmful to the country in the long run. Thus, they recommend that the administration “devise policies that help rather than harm immigrant families, and that reflect the American values of fairness, generosity, and inclusion.”58

Newcomers are integrated into American civil and political society through naturalization. Indeed, an important point made by participants in the two Asian population focus groups was that they perhaps knew more about the U.S. Constitution and the structures and institutions of the government than the native-born population precisely because they had studied to become citizens. These individuals articulated clearly their responsibilities as citizens, including the obligation to vote, to obey the law, and to “give back.” Their comments alone help to explain the higher participation rates for naturalized citizens by comparison with the native born. The focus group participants also stressed the importance of more civic education in school, education that would give young people the same training they had as they studied to pass the citizenship test.


  • 47Jens Hainmueller, Duncan Lawrence, Justin Gest, Michael Hotard, Rey Koslowski, and David D. Laitin, “A Randomized Controlled Design Reveals Barriers to Citizenship for Low-Income Immigrants,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (5) (2018): 939–944.
  • 48Barreto and Muñoz, “Reexamining the ‘Politics of In-Between’: Political Participation Among Mexican Immigrants in the United States.” Clearly the best example we have is the Dreamer population, who have become politically active and put themselves at risk because they are undocumented. Many of these young people only discovered their status as they graduated from high school. See Roberto G. Gonzales and Leo R. Chavez, “Awakening to a Nightmare: Abjectivity and Illegality in the Lives of Undocumented 1.5-Generation Latino Immigrants in the United States,” Current Anthropology 53 (3) (2012): 255–281.
  • 49Lisa García Bedolla, “Noncitizen Voting and Immigrant Political Engagement in the United States,” in Transforming Politics, Transforming America: The Political and Civic Incorporation of Immigrants in the United States, ed. Taeku Lee, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Ricardo Ramirez (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 51–70.
  • 50Irene Bloemraad and Alicia Sheares, “Understanding Membership in a World of Global Migration: (How) Does Citizenship Matter?” International Migration Review 51 (4) (2017): 848.
  • 51Irene Bloemraad, Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); and Irene Bloemraad, “Becoming a Citizen in the United States and Canada: Structured Mobilization and Immigrant Political Incorporation,” Social Forces 85 (2) (2006): 667–695.
  • 52Bloemraad, “Becoming a Citizen in the United States and Canada: Structured Mobilization and Immigrant Political Incorporation,” 667.
  • 53See also Els de Graauw and Irene Bloemraad, “Working Together: Building Successful Policy and Program Partnerships for Immigrant Integration,” Journal of Migration and Human Security 5 (1) (2017): 105–123.
  • 54Waters and Pineau, The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, 10–11.
  • 55Personal communication with Roberto Suro.
  • 56Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren, “Putting American First: A Statistical Case for Encouraging Rather than Impeding and Devaluing U.S. Citizenship,” Journal of Migration and Human Security 7 (4) (2019): 1–15.
  • 57Ibid., 1. As recently as November 2019, the Trump administration proposed raising the fees for citizenship by more than 80 percent. This is just one action taken by the Trump administration to make the naturalization process more difficult.
  • 58Kerwin and Warren, “Putting American First: A Statistical Case for Encouraging Rather than Impeding and Devaluing U.S. Citizenship,” 10.