In his first months in the White House, President Biden has made and proposed many changes to immigration policy, rolling back key Trump administration initiatives. One change that has flown under the radar is not about immigration but naturalization and citizenship. Recently, Biden issued an executive order to agencies to “eliminate barriers in and otherwise improve the existing naturalization process” that would ease the path for 14 million legal immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship.
This is a reversal of the Trump administration’s policies that kept citizenship out of reach even for millions of green-card holders. Under Trump’s watch, the fee to naturalize jumped 80 percent, from $640 to $1,170. The average time between filing an application and naturalization nearly doubled, from five to 10 months, creating a backlog of over 700,000 — and that was before the additional delays brought about by covid-19. Immigration officials crafted new grounds for denying applications for citizenship, launched a denaturalization campaign to take citizenship away from some naturalized citizens and rolled out a longer and more complex citizenship test (which Biden has already ended). Taken together, these barriers kept hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants from naturalizing in 2020.
The Trump administration’s hostility to naturalization was at odds with America’s founding values. Among the grievances in the Declaration of Independence was that the King “obstruct[ed]” the “Naturalization of Foreigners” and discouraged “migrations hither.” In short, Britain’s anti-naturalization and anti-immigration policies were impeding the natural right of all would-be Americans to build a new nation. If his administration makes naturalization easier, Biden will be upholding a vision of citizenship first articulated by the nation’s Founders, who imagined a capacious, inclusive form of U.S. citizenship. But Biden’s effort could go further, shaking off a second legacy of the Founders, who imagined future Americans as exclusively White.
The idea that individuals can choose their allegiance was one of the United States’ most important innovations. Under centuries-old British law, everyone born on territory controlled by the Crown owed “true and faithful obedience … to his sovereign,” not as a matter of choice but because God and nature required it. “Once an Englishman, always an Englishman,” was the maxim of the British courts, even if the Englishman in question wanted to shed that status. (Or, as King George put it in the musical “Hamilton,” “You’ll be back, soon you’ll see. You’ll remember you belong to me.”). The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War forced Britain to recognize for the first time that citizenship required consent.
The new nation followed through on these values by making it easy for most White settlers to become U.S. citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed immigrants with just two years of residence in the United States to apply for citizenship. Even as naturalization law has evolved over the years, the law has only rarely required more than five years of residence to be eligible for citizenship — less than most nations throughout history. In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain once again over citizenship, provoked by the British Royal Navy’s bad habit of impressing naturalized U.S. citizens on the ground that they remained British.
Yet hostility to naturalization also has deep historical roots. Although the United States has long made it easy for some people to become citizens, in the past naturalization has been denied to people of certain races and ethnicities. Just as troubling, the government has frequently used its power over naturalization and denaturalization to disenfranchise certain voters.
For centuries, access to citizenship was limited by race. Yes, the first Naturalization Act of 1790 made it easy to become a U.S. citizen — but only for “free white persons.” Everyone else was barred from accessing the right to vote, hold office and claim identity as an American. Following the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment established birthright citizenship for all born on U.S. soil, and the Naturalization Act was amended to allow Black people to naturalize. But racial restrictions on naturalization by Asians, Arabs and other ethnic and racial groups remained in place until as late as 1952.
Today, the great majority of legal immigrants eligible to naturalize are from Mexico, Central and South America and Asia. In other words, they are not White, and many are from what President Donald Trump called “s — thole countries.” The Trump administration’s multimillion dollar campaign to investigate 700,000 naturalized citizen, searching for grounds for to denaturalize them, also appeared to target certain racial and religious groups from countries the U.S. government designated as of “special interest” to U.S. national security, such as Afghanistan, the Philippines and Sudan. These are not people the Trump administration viewed as truly American.
Obstacles to naturalization have also long served as a voter suppression tactic. In 1798, the Federalist-dominated Congress, supported by President John Adams, dramatically extended the residency requirement for naturalization from five to 14 years. Federalists feared that if newcomers gained citizenship they would vote for Thomas Jefferson and his rival Democratic-Republican Party in the next election. Similar concerns animated Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring Chinese immigration and naturalization in part to prevent people from voting.
Like some of his predecessors, Trump had reason to fear the voting power of naturalized citizens. In 2020, despite all the barriers to naturalization, new citizens made up a whopping 10 percent of the electorate — a larger percentage than ever before. And, as the Trump administration surely knew, this new group of voters flocked in droves to the Democratic Party. An exit poll of Asian American voters — the fastest growing population of eligible voters — revealed that 73 percent of this sizable voting bloc were foreign-born naturalized citizens, and that nearly seven out of 10 voted for Biden.
To be sure, naturalized citizens are a diverse group who do not vote as one bloc, as illustrated by Miami Dade County’s immigrant-fueled vote for Trump. Nonetheless, based on the 2020 exit polls, it appears that naturalized citizens voted for Biden by the same as or wider margins than groups long viewed as traditionally aligned with Democrats, including voters under 30, union members, the college educated and city-dwellers. No wonder, then, the Trump administration sought to slow down the process of creating new citizens with the power to vote.
For at least the last four presidential election cycles, the Republican response to naturalized citizens’ tilt toward Democrats has been to take a page from the 1798 Federalist Party’s book, hoping to win elections by limiting access to the ballot. In the short term, the Trump administration’s barriers to naturalization were distressingly effective. One organization that assists immigrants estimated that the long delays in processing naturalization applications would prevent 441,000 would-be citizens from voting in the 2020 elections — votes that were likely have gone to Biden and other Democrats by a wide margin.
But over the long haul, the Republican strategy will surely backfire, just as it has in past elections in which naturalized citizens flexed their power at the polls. Immigrants’ rational response to these attacks is to naturalize as soon as possible and then to vote against the political party that made life unpleasant for them and their families. Naturalized immigrants and their families don’t just vote; they get elected to national office: Vice President Harris is the daughter of two immigrants, and 13 percent of the 116th Congress were immigrants or the children of immigrants, the great majority Democrats.
In what may have become a vicious circle, Republicans seem to fear that liberal immigration and citizenship policies could create new Democratic voters. But they should take a moment to consider the lessons from history, which suggests that the opposite is true: the more the Republican Party is seen as anti-immigrant, the more it persuades legal immigrants to naturalize and vote them out of office. That appears to be just what happened in 2020. And if Biden can implement his proposed reforms to ease naturalization, there may be millions of new voters ready to cast their ballots in 2024.