Immigration advocates and some in the media have recently touted a record spike in citizenship applications and increased interest in naturalization ahead of the presidential election as a result of strong negative campaign rhetoric around immigration. However, recent updates to official naturalization application data by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) pours cold water on that notion.
Available statistics on filings for citizenship show that the level of interest in citizenship so far this year is similar to past surges around presidential elections, political and legislative action, and administrative changes to the naturalization process. Even if the election is a key driver of new applications, it is unlikely that those filing now will be able to register and vote in November, given the current six to seven-month processing time for applications and the quickly-passing (or already passed) voter registration deadlines.
So far, USCIS has received around 440,000 applications for citizenship, slightly higher than the 412,000 it received over the same months in FY2012, leading up to the last presidential election (Figure 1). If this trend continues over the second half of FY2016, the total number of citizenship applications will be on par with (if not lower than) some previous presidential election cycles and other citizenship surges. How much of the current increase can be attributed to the election is also up for debate, since USCIS also announced a naturalization fee increase this fall that may be spurring some to get their applications in sooner rather than later. Monthly figures later in the year could confirm this trend.
While there have been periods of significant variation in the number of immigrants filing for and receiving citizenship, the numbers have trended decidedly upward over the last two decades, reflecting a significant increase in the foreign-born population in the last 30 years. On average, 700,000 persons per year have been naturalized since 2000. In FY2015, there were 730,000 naturalizations, up from around 653,000 in 2014 (Figure 2).
Interest in naturalization tends to spike in response to presidential elections, political and legislative action, and administrative changes to the citizenship process. For example, the FY2007 spike in naturalization applications (from 731,000 in FY2006 to 1.4 million in FY2007), was in part due to a scheduled fee increase from $300 to $595 set to begin in mid-2007 and increased political activity and naturalization campaigns ahead of the 2008 presidential election. The elevation of the immigration reform debate to the national stage during congressional deliberations between 2005 and 2007 is also believed to have played a part.
Source: DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics
The significant increases in in the mid-1990s are partly a result of immigrants who received legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and a citizenship drive program begun by the Clinton-Gore administration in 1995 to reduce the backlog in citizenship applications called “Citizenship USA.” The increase during this period is also credited to immigration legislation that limited noncitizens’ access to public benefits and legal protections and that expanded the list of deportable offenses.1
The current “citizenship surge” is not on track to be as historic as the spikes in 2008 and 1996 or all that different from other previous election year surges. Instead, it is likely to end around the levels seen before the 2012 election. Additionally, even if the number of applicants in the second half of FY2016 is significantly higher than the number that applied between October and March, the current average processing times for citizenship applications is between six and seven months, making it unlikely that any new applicants would be able to vote in the November election.
1 For example: 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), see more: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/naturalization-trends-united-states.