Breaking Down Barriers to Naturalization for Low-Income Immigrants: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Design

David Laitin

David Laitin, Professor of Political Science, Stanford University


Cosponsored by the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy and the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Welcome and Introductions: Rey Koslowski, Political Science, University at Albany
Presentation: David Laitin, Professor of Political Science, Stanford University
Discussant: Laura Gonzalez-Murphy, Director, NYS Office for New Americans

Project Description: Naturalization rates have declined over the past few decades, and the United States currently lags far behind other major host countries when it comes to naturalization. It’s a striking disparity given that the vast majority of immigrants express interest in citizenship. What holds them back? Why are some immigrants more likely than others to complete the naturalization process? Without answers, policymakers and advocates have little basis for programs to ensure that all immigrants have equal access to citizenship and its benefits. Thanks to a partnership with New York State’s Office of New Americans, we are now providing the causal evidence they need to lift barriers to naturalization—a first step to unlocking the potential of the country’s immigrant populations. Start with the price tag: $725 just to file the application, plus hundreds or even thousands more if you need English classes or consultations with immigration lawyers. Noting that the filing fee alone places citizenship out of reach for low-income immigrants struggling to make ends meet, New York’s Office of New Americans launched a lottery for vouchers to cover the cost. The lottery, in assigning winners at random, gives us a way to compare similarly situated immigrants who want to become citizens: those who receive the voucher and those who don’t. By following the two groups to see how many complete the application, we can measure how powerful the financial assistance was, and in turn how much the costs may be discouraging others from naturalizing. It may be, however, that even eliminating the application cost isn’t enough to pave the way toward citizenship. The application process can be time-consuming and complicated, non-financial costs that are challenging even for those with resources. Do these and other disadvantages keep low-income immigrants from naturalizing? To find out, we used the lottery to identify immigrants who are poor enough to qualify for the federal fee waiver, and then piloted various “nudges” encouraging them to apply and visit a local immigrant service provider for help navigating the process. Whether they follow through or fall through the cracks may indicate whether the challenges to naturalization run deeper than financial constraints.

Publication: Jens Hainmueller, Duncan Lawrence, Justin Gest, Michael Hotard, Rey Koslowski, David D. Laitin, "A Randomized Controlled Design Reveals Barriers to Citizenship for Low-Income Immigrants," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), January 16, 2018.

Speaker's Bio: David D. Laitin is the James T. Watkins IV and Elise V. Watkins Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and the co-director of Stanford's Immigration Policy Lab. His books include Politics, Language and Thought: The Somali Experience (1977), Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba (1986), Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa (1992), Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (1998), and Nations, States and Violence (2007). Over the past decade, mostly in collaboration with James Fearon, he has published several papers on ethnicity, ethnic cooperation, the sources of civil war, and on policies that work to settle civil wars. Laitin has conducted ethnographic, survey and experimental research on Muslim integration into France, seeking to assess the magnitude of religious discrimination and isolate the mechanisms that sustain it. The results are published in Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian Heritage Societies (2016). Laitin has been a recipient of fellowships from the Howard Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.