02/28/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Nurturing Naturalization

With the sequester threatening economic stability and gun advocates and opponents squaring off for a battle, it seems increasingly likely that the only policy area where Democrats and Republicans may agree this year is immigration reform -- and now even that seems chancy.

Democrats, of course, promised change and they know that they will be held accountable if policy progress is stymied. Meanwhile, having lost both Latino and Asian-American voters by large margins, Republicans have good reason to temper the tone on immigration. At the same time, some in the party are now suggesting that perhaps we could legalize undocumented residents but grant them a special status that will prevent them from ever obtaining citizenship.

Citizenship is, however, key to the success of any reform: research released late last year demonstrates that naturalization leads to better economic outcomes as well as more civic engagement. But even as Congress debates whether those currently unauthorized should have a road to citizenship -- and just how long the road might be -- here's one area where we think everyone might agree: We should be encouraging the naturalization of those immigrants who are already in the country under lawful conditions.

Unfortunately, there are eight-and-a-half million lawful permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize who have not yet done so. While some of this may reflect personal choice, federal policy has sometimes been a barrier. In a new report called "Nurturing Naturalization: Could Lowering the Fee Help?", I and three other researchers at USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration explore the obstacles to citizenship for aspiring Americans by focusing on the fees associated with the naturalization process. Through original analysis of new data on naturalization from the Office of Immigration Statistics and the American Community Survey, the report indicates that fee increases have had a significant impact on both the volume and the composition of who naturalizes.

In some ways, this seems an obvious finding: After all, in various surveys, immigrants themselves have said that the cost of naturalization is a barrier. But our findings are significant partly because an earlier set of studies from the Congressional Research Service suggested that fee increases had little impact on the demand for immigrant services.

We dissect those earlier studies and show that when one separates out naturalizations (versus services like obtaining the H1-B visas reserved for highly skilled immigrants or renewals of so-called "green cards"), there was a significant decline in applications for citizenship when fees went up. We then make use of a new feature in the American Community Survey; the annual survey of one percent of U.S. residents now asks immigrant respondents what year they naturalized -- to show that fee increases are associated with a dramatic decline in the naturalization of less-educated (and likely lower-income) immigrants, an increase in the number of years immigrants wait to become citizens, and a change in the national origin of the naturalizing population, in particular a relative reduction in those who were born in Mexico.

Indeed, the brief shows that the percentage of immigrants with less than a high school education becoming U.S. citizens has declined by 50 percent since 1996, from 30 percent of the total down to 15 percent currently. Most of the decline has come since 2007, when the cost of citizenship increased from $395 to $680, a figure that may seem low for many Americans but represents nearly three weeks of take-home pay for an immigrant working at the minimum wage. In addition, the percentage of Mexican immigrants becoming U.S. citizens also declined dramatically, from a high of 24 percent of the total in 1996 to a current low of 13 percent. Again, most of the decline has come since the 2007 fee increase.

In short, price matters. And to the extent that public policy makers think that the civic and economic benefits of citizenship should be realized for both immigrants and the country, a consideration of lowering the fee, either through having Congress backfill the potential funding gap or by allowing United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to restructure the relative fee structure, may be in order.

For a nation of immigrants, encouraging naturalization and full participation in our civic and economic life would seem to be one of those goals on which many Americans can agree. After all, aspiring to be American should be about loyalty not about affordability, about the strength of your values -- not the size of your checkbook.