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Naturalization Trends in the United States

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Naturalization Trends in the United States

About 89,000 foreign-born members of the U.S. armed services have become U.S. citizens since the September 11, 2001 attacks. 

Naturalization, which is the process by which immigrants take citizenship in their country of residence, extends to foreign-born nationals the same rights and responsibilities as those held by the native born. The final step in the naturalization process is being sworn in as a U.S. citizen during an oath-taking ceremony, which is meant to create and seal in a greater sense of belonging to the United States.

In 2012, there were about 757,000 naturalizations in the United States, out of a total immigrant population of 40.8 million. Over the past decade, the number of naturalizations per year in the United States has varied between about 460,000 and just over 1 million, depending on several factors including application costs, processing times, and backlogs, as well as immigrants' initiative, financial constraints, and personal notions of citizenship.

Becoming a naturalized citizen is contingent upon meeting certain requirements such as completing a period of legal residence, achieving proficiency in the national language, and demonstrating knowledge of U.S. norms and customs. The benefits of naturalization include political participation, ability to work in certain jobs reserved for citizens, greater access to government services, and protection from deportation. Immigrants who naturalize often experience economic dividends, such as higher incomes and home-ownership rates.

This article examines the latest naturalization data available for the United States, including historical trends, data by country of origin and state of residence, as well as socioeconomic characteristics of the 18.7 million naturalized U.S. citizens residing in the United States in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, the data presented are from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) Annual Flow Report on the number and characteristics of foreign-born nationals who naturalized in 2012, as well from tables available on the OIS website.

Note: All yearly data are for the government's fiscal year of October 1 through September 30 of the given year.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Naturalization Trends by Country of Origin and State of Residence

Select Socioeconomic Characteristics of Naturalized Citizens

Naturalization Trends by Country of Origin and State of Residence

There were 18.7 million naturalized citizens in the United States in 2012.
Of the 40.8 million immigrants residing in the United States in 2012, 18.7 million (or 46 percent) were naturalized citizens, according to 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) estimates.

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In 2012, nearly 8.8 million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) were eligible for naturalization.
According to the latest available OIS estimates, 13.3 million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) resided in the United States as of January 1, 2012. Of them, about 8.8 million were eligible to naturalize.

Of those eligible, 2.5 million (or 28 percent) resided in California, 1.1 million (12 percent) in New York, 930,000 (11 percent) in Texas, and 830,000 (9 percent) in Florida.

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The Naturalization Process
Naturalization is a multi-step 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 (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.

During a designated time of war, foreign-born noncitizen military personnel are eligible for expedited citizenship.

In 2012, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalized about 757,000 LPRs.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received 899,162 applications for citizenship in 2012 and naturalized 757,434 LPRs (See Figure 1). The number of immigrants who naturalized in 2012 grew by 9 percent compared to the 694,193 naturalizations in 2011.

Note: There is some lag between the time an application for naturalization is submitted to USCIS and when citizenship status is conferred (see Text Box).

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USCIS denied 65,874 naturalization petitions in 2012.
Applicants can be denied citizenship by USCIS for one or more of the following reasons: if the applicant cannot prove five years of permanent residence in the United States (three years if the applicant is married to a U.S. citizen spouse); is found to lack allegiance to the United States; is determined to have bad moral character; or if the applicant fails the required English language or American civics test. Overall, the agency denied 65,874 applications in 2012.

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The data in the following point are from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services N-400 Naturalization Benefits - Monthly Charts (see Sources).

As of the end of 2012, about 390,000 naturalization applications were awaiting a decision.
The number of pending naturalization petitions at the end of 2012 (390,000) continued an upward trend from the previous two years (312,000 naturalization petitions pending at the end of 2011 and 292,000 at the end of 2010).

Figure 1. Annual Number of New U.S. Citizens and LPRs, 1980 to 2012
Source: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2012. Available online.

The upward trend in naturalizations during the second half of the 1990s resulted in part from legislation passed in 1986 and 1996 (see Figure 1). Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), about 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants received LPR status, increasing the pool of those eventually eligible for naturalization. Three federal laws that Congress passed in 1996 prompted more immigrants to apply for naturalization. These 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 access to public benefits and legal protections for noncitizens and expanded the list of offenses for which noncitizens — including LPRs — could be removed from the country, thus incentivizing naturalization for green-card holders.

The sharp increase in naturalizations of about 59 percent between 2007 and 2008 (from 660,477 to 1,046,539) was the result of naturalization campaigns launched across the country ahead of the 2008 presidential elections and an impending increase in fees assessed for naturalization applications(which took effect on July 30, 2007). These actions coalesced to create a backlog in naturalization applications, prompting USCIS in late 2007 to launch efforts to reduce processing times (see USCIS: Backlog in Naturalization Applications Will Take Nearly Three Years to Clear and the MPI brief, Immigration Fee Increases in Context.

Figure 2. Median Years in LPR Status for Persons Naturalized in 2012 by Region of Birth
Source: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS). 2013. Annual Flow Report – U.S. Naturalizations: 2012. Available online.

 

Note: The median time period for naturalization after attaining LPR status in North America reflects lower than average naturalizations among Mexican foreign born. For more information, see Mexican Immigrants in the United States.

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In 2012, the median number of years of residence between the date on which LPR status is conferred and the date of naturalization was seven years.
Among persons who became U.S. citizens in 2012, the median number of years of residence between the date on which LPR status was granted and naturalization was seven years. The median time of residence for new citizens in both 2010 and in 2011 was six years.

Note: Five years' residency (or three years if the naturalization petitioner is a spouse of a U.S. citizen) is a requirement for becoming naturalized. The share of naturalizations among those eligible to naturalization varies by nationality. Factors affecting the median number of years of residence between the date on which LPR status is conferred and the date of naturalization include delays in preparing the naturalization application (including ability to pay fees assessed) and English language proficiency; personal notions of citizenship (including assessment of the risk of losing rights and/or property in one's origin country); and processing times, security check delays, and backlogs.

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In 2012, immigrants from six countries — Mexico, the Philippines, India, the Dominican Republic, China, and Cuba — accounted for close to 38 percent of all naturalizations.
Of all immigrants who naturalized in 2012, 13.5 percent were born in Mexico (102,181), 6 percent each in the Philippines (44,958) and India (42,928), and 4 percent each in the Dominican Republic (33,351), China (31,868), and Cuba (31,244). Nationals of these six countries accounted for close to 38 percent of all naturalizations. The next-largest shares were comprised of nationals from Colombia (23,972 or 3 percent), Vietnam (23,490 or 3 percent), Haiti (19,114 or 2.5 percent), and El Salvador (16,685 or 2 percent) (see Figure 3).

Between 2000 and 2012, Mexico remained the top country of birth for people naturalizing in the United States, while the Philippines and India replaced Vietnam and China for second and third place. While Iran, Jamaica, and Korea appeared on the top 10 list in 2000, these countries were supplanted by Haiti, Colombia, and Cuba on the 2012 list of top 10 countries of birth for noncitizens naturalizing in the United States.

 

Figure 3. Top 10 Countries of Birth for Noncitizens Naturalizing in the United States, 2012
Source: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2012. Available online.

 

 

Figure 4. Top 10 Countries of Birth for Noncitizens Naturalizing in the United States, 2000
Source: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Available online.

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Slightly more than half of all foreign born who naturalized in 2012 lived in one of four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas.
In 2012, 21 percent of all immigrants who naturalized lived in California (158,850), 13 percent in Florida (100,890), 12 percent in New York (93,584), and 8 percent in Texas (57,762) (see Table 1).

Table 1. Top 10 States by Number of Immigrant Residents who Naturalized by Year, 2002-12

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Greater New York, Miami, and Los Angeles were home to one-third of all immigrants who naturalized in 2012.
About 16 percent of those who naturalized in 2012 lived in the greater New York metropolitan area (123,891), 9 percent in greater Miami (68,072), and 9 percent in greater Los Angeles (65,679). These metropolitan areas, together with greater Washington DC (4 percent or 31,601), Chicago (4 percent or 26,942), Houston (3 percent or 22,056), San Francisco (3 percent or 20,474), Boston (2 percent or 18,264), and Dallas (2 percent or 16,892) were home to more than half (52 percent) of all new U.S. citizens in 2012.

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A July 2002 executive order made noncitizen members of the armed forces eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship.
Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the president to issue executive orders specifying periods of conflict during which foreign-born members of the U.S. military are eligible for immediate U.S. citizenship.

In a July 2002 executive order, President George W. Bush specified that such a period of hostilities began after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and that foreign-born, noncitizen military personnel serving on or after that date were thus eligible for expedited citizenship. During times of peace, noncitizen members of the armed forces may obtain citizenship after a one-year waiting period.

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Around 89,000 foreign-born members of the U.S. armed services have become U.S. citizens since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Since September 2001, 78,376 foreign-born military personnel have become naturalized citizens in the United States. Another 10,719 have become citizens overseas or aboard U.S. Navy ships.

Between 2005 and 2013, nearly 90 percent of the 10,492 foreign-born service members naturalizing overseas did so in five countries: Iraq (3,412 individuals), Japan (2,154), Germany (1,459), South Korea (1,171), and Afghanistan (1,156).

The following data are from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey.

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Definitions
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.

We use the terms "immigrants" and "foreign born" interchangeably.

Select Socioeconomic Characteristics of Naturalized Citizens

Naturalized immigrants are better educated than immigrants who have not naturalized.
In 2012, 34 percent of naturalized immigrants ages 25 and older possessed a bachelor's degree or higher and an additional 24 percent had some college or an associate's degree, bringing the total share of naturalized immigrants with postsecondary education to 58 percent (the equivalent share is 61 percent for U.S.-born citizens). By contrast, 22 percent of non-naturalized immigrants had a bachelor's degree or higher and 15 percent had some college or an associate's degree, bringing the share of those possessing postsecondary education to 37 percent. Twenty-one percent of naturalized immigrants had not completed high school, while this share was 41 percent among non-naturalized immigrants and 10 percent among U.S.-born citizens.

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Naturalized immigrants have higher median earnings than non-naturalized immigrants and higher median household incomes than U.S.-born citizens.
In 2012, median earnings for naturalized immigrant males and females working full-time, year-round ($49,345 and $39,737 respectively) were higher than median earnings for non-naturalized immigrant males and females ($29,575 and $24,492 respectively). The median income of naturalized immigrant males was slightly less than that of U.S.-born males (whose median earnings were $50,283), while naturalized immigrant females earned slightly more than U.S.-born females (whose median earnings were $38,514). Median household income for naturalized immigrants ($56,190) was higher than both non-naturalized immigrant households ($38,214) and U.S.-born citizen households ($51,975). On average, non-naturalized immigrant households (1.56 workers) tended to include more workers than naturalized immigrant households (1.43 workers) and U.S.-born citizen households (1.16 workers).

  • For more information, see: Sumption, Madeleine and Sarah Flamm. 2012. The Economic Value of Citizenship for Immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available online.

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Naturalized immigrants have nearly equivalent home-ownership rates to U.S.-born citizens.
Sixty-five percent of naturalized immigrants lived in owner-occupied housing units, as did 66 percent of U.S.-born citizens. Thirty-four percent of non-naturalized immigrants lived in owner-occupied housing units.

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Sources:

Banulescu-Bogdan, Natalia. 2013. Shaping Citizenship Policies to Strengthen Immigrant Integration. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau, 2012. Selected Characteristics of the Native and Foreign-born Populations. Available online.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS). 2013. Data on Naturalizations, FY 2012. Available online.

--. 2013. Annual Flow Report – U.S. Naturalizations: 2012. Available online.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 2013. Estimates of the Legal Permanent Resident Population in 2012. Available online.

--. 2013. N-400 Naturalization Benefits - Monthly Charts. Available online.

--. 2013. Fact Sheet: Naturalization through Military Service. Available online.

Definitions of terms can be found at the website of the Department of Homeland Security.