MPI: Naturalized Citizens in the United States

Useful background:

Naturalization is perhaps the most powerful marker of immigrants’ integration, as they take the fullest step towards participation in the civic life of their new country by becoming citizens. In the United States, naturalized citizens have the same privileges and responsibilities as U.S.-born citizens, including the right to vote and similar access to government benefits and public-sector jobs. They also receive the ability to sponsor immediate family members for immigration and cannot be deported.

More than 613,700 immigrants naturalized during fiscal year (FY) 2020, fewer than at any other point in the last decade. This decline may be partly due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including delayed oath ceremonies; the FY 2020 number represented a 27 percent decline from the 843,600 naturalizations the prior year, which marked the largest number since FY 2008 (see Figure 1). Notably, trends for new naturalized citizens do not necessarily follow those for new lawful permanent residents (LPRs). Overall, there were 23.2 million naturalized U.S. citizens in the United States in 2019, the most recent reporting available, making up 52 percent of the overall immigrant population, which stood at 44.9 million.

Figure 1. New Naturalizations and New Lawful Permanent Residents, FY 1980-2020

Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, various years), available online; DHS, “Legal Immigration and Adjustment of Status Report Fiscal Year 2020, Quarter 4,” accessed July 30, 2021.

In recent years, institutional factors such as processing times and case backlogs have affected the number of annual naturalizations, as have financial constraints in meeting the citizenship application fee of $725 and immigrants’ personal decisions about whether to apply. While the number of new naturalized citizens has fluctuated each year, processing wait times have increased. The average processing time for N-400 applications for naturalization increased to 11.5 months in FY 2021, up from 9.1 months in FY 2020 and about 10 months in FY 2019.

In order to become a citizen, applicants must meet a set of requirements outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act. These include maintaining lawful permanent residence, also known as getting a green card, for several years (generally five, though a green-card holder married to a U.S. citizen can naturalize after three years), proving basic proficiency in English and knowledge of U.S. history and government, and passing a background check to demonstrate good moral character. In addition to legal benefits, naturalized citizens also tend to have better economic outcomes than other immigrants, including higher incomes and rates of homeownership.

Using the most recent available data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau (the most recent 2019 American Community Survey [ACS]), and other sources, this Spotlight provides information on new naturalized citizens in the United States, including historical trends, characteristics of naturalized citizens, and the population potentially eligible for naturalization.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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