I Hereby Declare, on Oath...(Part 1)
Naturalization is the end of the beginning of many immigrant's American story.
Over they years some people have asked us, “I want to know more about the U.S. immigration system, but where do I start?” To them we always make the same recommendation: start by attending a naturalization ceremony. Whatever your political orientation or attitude about immigration in general, there is no more moving, emotional, and pride-inducing event than watching a group of people from diverse national, religious, and ethnic backgrounds stand together in a room and join this 200 plus year old project in small (d) democracy that we Americans are embarked upon (rocky as it may be at times). While the ceremonies aren’t exactly open to the public, if you keep your ear to the ground you are likely to find a friend, neighbor, or coworker who would be happy to have you with them to celebrate this often monumental event in their lives. People are frequently moved to tears during the swearing of the oath, and the lines of people taking selfies with their certificates and American flags is so inspiring that it may make you forget for a moment all the difficult and at times unfair challenges that they had to overcome along the way.
So with that in mind it’s a pity that most Americans don’t know much about how we welcome and recognize our newest citizens. Before we get into a more narrow discussion of the nuts and bolts of the naturalization process next week, we thought it would be fun to look at a few aspects of the citizenship process that people are not familiar with and talk about how they compare to other countries.
First of all, why are Americans so oblivious to what should be one of the most fundamentally important processes in American government? After all, we have our “nation of immigrants” and “melting pot” and “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” conversations frequently trotted out in the media and in political speeches to make the case that we are welcoming to immigrants and recognize their role in advancing our American vision of democracy (fun fact: the much maligned “Emma” chatbot on the USCIS web page is actually named after Emma Lazarus, who wrote the “New Colossus” poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty). Yet when it comes down to it, most Americans don’t have the foggiest idea of what an actual immigrant has to do to gain their citizenship, much less any general idea of what it’s like to abandon the nation in which you were born and swear loyalty to another society and government.
Just to give a sense of the absurd imbalance between the numbers of “Americans coming” vs. “Americans going”, or new citizens vs. those who renounce American citizenship, in recent years nearly a million new citizens are minted annually in America and less than 6000 Americans permanently leave. To be fair, the $2350 dollar fee to renounce U.S. citizenship may have something to do with this.
The demographics and nationalities of those who naturalize unsurprisingly track pretty closely with what we saw in the green card numbers, but there are a couple added dimensions to the citizenship process that bear special mention.
The first is the oath of allegiance. You can find an interesting comparison of the various oaths that countries administer during their naturalization ceremonies here, but I think it’s worthy of mention that the U.S. oath is considerably more lengthy and demanding then what you see elsewhere. This makes a certain kind of sense, because in America we are taking people who have (historically) been the subjects of kings, emperors, and other rulers and asking them to abandon those loyalties entirely in favor of a new form of government. It’s an interesting contrast to most of the other former Commonwealth of Nations countries, which though mostly democratic still explicitly swear loyalty to the reigning British monarch even to this day. Other countries like Russia simply ask that a oath taker swear loyalty to the customs and traditions of a country, without specifically obligating them for military service or other civic duties. To give a little perspective, there are many countries where the number of people they naturalize are infinitesimally small each year, so whatever words they say during the oath ceremony is probably not as broadly important in that context.
Another aspect of citizenship that is important to consider is gatekeeping. The U.S. obviously does not make it very easy for people to reach the citizenship step. There are many steps that people must take before they reach this part of the process, and many things that can trip them up even at the citizenship application stage (more on this next week). That being said, we have a fairly diverse font of possible immigrants that most other countries do not. To wit, we have dozens of family-based relationships that can put you on the pathway to citizenship status (spouses, parents, adult children, adult brothers and sisters, spouses of green card holders, etc.) and many employment and investment based criteria that can also get you there. We also have a large number of humanitarian programs for asylees and refugees which ultimately can lead to citizenship with relatively forgiving processes to overcome issues that might present a problem in other immigration contexts.
That is absolutely not the case in many other countries, so let’s make sure we put that in perspective. While other countries have family-based systems as well, they also use complex “skills based” systems to determine who is eligible for visas outside of those family contexts. There are many pros and cons to these kinds of schemes, but as they are implemented in countries like China or Japan they often amount to a cultural litmus test that limits the flow of talent who aren’t willing to make a significant effort to adopt the cultural and social mores of the gaining country. For a largely homogenous ethno-state that’s a choice they must make (though it is self-defeating), but for a country like America it seems counter-productive at best.
The last point we’d like to mention is that naturalization is not automatic, or a one-size-fits-all process. While the required amount of time you must generally live in the U.S. after receiving your green card is the major requirement for applying for citizenship (5 years for most, 3 years for those married to American citizens), there are many who wait years or decades to take that final step. That is because the U.S. affords a fairly flexible system to permanent residents (green card holders) who can work where they like, move around freely, and operate businesses/invest/engage in business relationships as needed. This is absolutely not the case in many other countries! In addition, the U.S. takes a pretty laid back attitude towards dual-citizenship (as long as you pay your taxes). This makes it somewhat reasonable to hold green card status indefinitely, unless you want the privilege to run for public office, hold certain clearances in U.S. government work, or want to vote.
Alright, well that’s the lay of the land when it comes to naturalization in America. You worked hard to get there, you meet the requirements, and you decide it’s time to take the plunge! What comes next? We will talk next week about the process itself, the roadblocks it presents, and where many people encounter difficulty with the citizenship process. Join us next week for part 2!
In the news:
U.S. President-elect Biden, Mexico's president vow to cooperate on immigration - The delay in the Mexican President’s recognition of Biden’s electoral victory, paired with the shocking drama surrounding the apprehension of a former Mexican defense chief, led to much speculation around what exactly was promised to President Lopez Obrador in exchange for his cooperation on a number of seemingly hard-line border initiatives like the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols”. It’s going to be a rocky road ahead for Mexico and the U.S.
Deregulating Legal Immigration: A Blueprint for Agency Action - We highlighted this a bit on our twitter account, but it is really just such an impressive and important project that we wanted to mention it again here. We are big Cato fans, not necessarily from an ideological perspective but just out of respect for the detailed and thorough work that they do. Agree or disagree, (and we agree on the majority of these recommendations), the work that collectively went into this project is worthy of strong praise. As we enter this new administration this kind of detailed policy analysis will be critical to doing an end-run around lobbyists and promoting positive change. Hope to see more of it from Mr. Bier and his colleagues!