Why Citizenship Matters

Clearing the road to citizenship is essential to improving immigrants’ economic lot.

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Article created by The Economic Policy Institute.

If you’ve followed the immigration debate, you’ve probably heard the phrase “creating a path to citizenship.” What does it mean? And why is it important?

In the context of the current debate, the idea applies to people who came here illegally but have lived within the law since then, held jobs, paid taxes, and met other standards, such as learning English. Under the more welcoming approach to immigration reform, these people, after paying a fine, would have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities as native-born Americans.

Why is this important? One reason, of course, is restoring respect for the law. Another is recognizing the rights of people who live, work, and raise families in America but have not had the opportunity to participate in our democracy.

But there’s another reason that this hasn’t gotten enough attention: the significant economic advantages that immigrant workers can receive from citizenship.

Regarding poverty rates in 2004 (the most recent available data) for U.S. residents by country of birth, 12 percent of native-born Americans were poor that year, compared with 17 percent of immigrants.

But the difference in the poverty rates between naturalized citizens and non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, is vast. While 9.8 percent of those naturalized are poor, the share for non-citizens is a whopping 21.6 percent.

In other words, there is a huge difference between the economic status of immigrants who have become citizens and those who have not. The path to citizenship is also a path out of poverty.

Of course, other interpretations are possible. Perhaps naturalized citizens hail from different lands from other immigrants, or have been here longer, or arrived here with means and skills that gave them a leg up. It’s also the case that white and Asian immigrants, groups with lower poverty rates, make up a larger share of naturalized citizens than of non-citizens.

But the results hold even when we account for educational differences and date of arrival in the United States. As regards ethnicity, the poverty rate of Hispanic non-citizens was 26.1 percent in 2004, compared with 13.4 percent of the naturalized Hispanic population. (The comparison is almost identical for black immigrants.)

We can thus be confident that an important reason for this difference is the benefits conferred by citizenship and the disadvantages associated with lack of citizenship. It is simply much easier to integrate economically, not to mention culturally and socially, if one is a citizen.

The policy implications should be obvious. We must not let ourselves become a nation of permanent illegal immigrants, who toil in the shadows; nor should we become a nation of “guest workers.” We are a nation of immigrants who have trodden the path toward citizenship. A central goal of reform should be to clear that path for those who deserve the privileges, economic and otherwise, of being an American citizen.

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