Executive Summary

Over 9 million immigrants in the United States are lawful permanent residents (green card holders) currently eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Naturalization—the process by which an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen—brings considerable economic benefits at the individual, regional, and national levels. Naturalized immigrants earn 8-11% more in annual income than non-naturalized immigrants (controlling for variables such as skills, education, and fluency in English), suggesting that naturalization leads to better-paying jobs by signaling to employers that a given immigrant has strong English language skills and a long-term commitment to live and work in the United States.

One study of 21 U.S. cities found that if all eligible immigrant residents were to naturalize, their aggregate income would increase by $5.7 billion, yielding an increase in homeownership by over 45,000 people and an increase in tax revenue of $2 billion. Nationally, if half of the eligible immigrant population of the United States naturalized, the increased earnings and demand could boost GDP by $37-52 billion per year.

But barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen have gotten worse over time, and are not evenly distributed across the country. This report uses a novel integration of public data sets to understand national trends in the government’s handling of citizenship applications, as well as barriers at the local level.

Key findings of this report include:

The coronavirus pandemic disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of potential new American voters.

On March 18, 2020—due to COVID-19—USCIS stopped conducting in-person interviews and oath ceremonies for immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens. These immigrants had already made it through most of the naturalization process after many months—sometimes years—of waiting when the naturalization process was halted. Nationwide, there were well over 100,000 naturalization applicants already stuck in limbo, and with thousands more piling up by the month, it became a very real possibility that these citizens-in-waiting would likely be unable to vote in the 2020 election. 

Boundless has estimated that nearly 300,000 would-be citizens who should have been eligible to vote in the 2020 elections— including many Senate runoffs—couldn’t due to the suspension of naturalization services. 

The national trends were worrisome, even before the pandemic.

The processing time for a citizenship application has surged to 10 months—about double the processing time between 2012 and 2016. (Note that the processing time for a citizenship application is from receipt all the way until the final oath ceremony, not just the approval of the application.)

These processing times are almost sure to keep rising, because the government has not kept pace with the volume of incoming applications. After a 2-year spike in 2016–2017, the volume of citizenship applications fell slightly in 2018 and 2019, only to once again surge to historic levels in 2020.

The likelihood that a citizenship application will be denied has risen over the past few years, peaking in 2009 at almost 13% before falling slightly for a few years and then surging to 11.4% in 2020.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is much harder in some places than others.

Immigrants in some cities face citizenship application wait times more than four times higher than in other cities. Immigrants in some cities experience a citizenship application denial rate two times higher than the national average, for no apparent reason.

Some cities have four or five government field offices where immigrants can attend their citizenship interviews (once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted). Other cities have none and make immigrants travel over 150 miles to the nearest field office.

New rankings reveal the best and worst places to become a U.S. citizen.

The top 3 best overall metro areas for immigrants to become U.S. citizens are Raleigh, North Carolina; Charleston-North Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

The worst 3 metro areas for immigrants to become U.S. citizens are New York-Newark-Jersey City, New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania; San Diego-Carlsbad, CA; and Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware-Maryland.

How the Coronavirus Froze Naturalization, State by State

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, conducts interviews and oath ceremonies for immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens. From March 18th through June 4th 2020—due to the coronavirus pandemic—USCIS stopped doing these interviews and ceremonies, a delay that left well over 100,000 future Americans in limbo. These would-be citizens had already made it through most of the naturalization process but were forced to wait, for what at the time could have been indefinitely, before they could become full citizens. This also meant these would-be citizens had to wait to gain the right to vote in the 2020 election. Although USCIS resumed interviews and oath ceremonies after 3 months, the number of disenfranchised citizens-in-waiting ballooned to 300,000. 

Boundless did the math, and estimated that 2,100 immigrants would run out of time to vote each day that USCIS offices remained closed. The chart below estimates how many disenfranchised citizens-in-waiting found themselves in limbo in each state. The number increases for each month the COVID-19 shutdown remained in effect. 

And the true naturalization crisis may be even worse. Citizenship application data for the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2020 was recently released, and the number is staggering: during this period (July through September 2020), 34.4% more people applied for U.S. citizenship than during the same period in advance of the 2016 election.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the immigration system, and controlling for past anomalies driven by Congress, demand for U.S. citizenship in recent years has remained higher than demand seen prior to the spike in 2016–2017.  

Immigrants in COVID-19 Limbo, State by State

Even before the delay from COVID-19, immigrants seeking naturalization faced an uneven, challenging landscape. USCIS field offices around the United States handle naturalization applications, and the median processing time—from filing all the way to oath ceremony—varies widely and has increased over the last year, ranging from 3.7 months (in Cleveland, OH) to 15.8 months (in Seattle, WA) in 2019 and ranging from 5.5 months (in Louisville, KY) to 17.5 months (in Seattle, WA) in 2020. Considering that the naturalization process for all immigrants effectively ground to a halt in March of 2020, this means that immigrants seeking naturalization in Seattle, more often than not, had to file their applications almost two years before the election to become eligible to vote.

The charts below show median and maximum wait times and backlog completion rates for USCIS field offices serving a given metro area. 

National Trends

Nationwide, is it getting easier or harder to become a naturalized U.S. citizen?

First, consider the baseline: There are approximately  9.2 million immigrants in the United States who are eligible for U.S. citizenship, but fewer than 1 million typically apply in any given year. Many barriers to citizenship are more or less fixed: given high application fees and the required civics and English tests, it’s simply less costly and time-intensive upfront for most people to renew their green card every 10 years than to go through the naturalization process.

The volume of citizenship applications does fluctuate from year to year, typically spiking during election years—or in advance of an application fee increase—and then decreasing sharply the following year. In 2016 and 2017, something unusual happened: Volume spiked at nearly 1 million applications for 2 years in a row. This trend held true for both 2019 and 2020 as well.

Has the government’s response been adequate? The following data analysis seeks to answer the question.

Surging Backlog

A look at the past decade indicates a worrying trend.

Although application volume was expected to fall, the volume has remained at almost 1 million applicants annually through the end of 2020, and although processing volume had begun to increase in 2019, the cessation of processing applications due to COVID-19 has led to a surge in the backlog of pending applications.

USCIS, the federal agency responsible for processing citizenship applications, has defended itself by noting that the backlog more than doubled during the Obama administration. This is true: the backlog rose from nearly 292,000 in September 2010 to over 636,000 by the time Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017.

But USCIS has also claimed that the surge in applications during 2016 and 2017 created a “record and unprecedented” workload, and a look at the past 3 decades shows that this is not true.

Backlogs in Context

In 2007, citizenship applications surged to nearly 1.4 million, far higher than the recent uptick. This was driven in part by a looming 80% application fee hike that year, and in part by an increase in newly eligible immigrants who had obtained their green cards 5 years earlier under the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act of 2000.

USCIS responded with a surge in processing volume the following year, and the backlog plunged to a 30-year low of about 257,000 in 2009.

In the mid-1990s, there was a truly “record and unprecedented” surge in citizenship applications, driven in part by a corresponding increase in newly eligible immigrants who had received green cards under the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986 (IRCA, also known as the “Reagan Amnesty”). Between 1995 and 1998, application volume stayed well above 900,000, peaking at over 1.4 million in 1997. Although the backlog initially shot past 2 million in 1997-1998, USCIS responded with a comparable surge in processing volume that appears to have tamed the backlog by 1999-2000.

The data indicate that when USCIS devotes sufficient resources to a citizenship application surge, it’s possible to dramatically reduce a backlog within one year. That’s what happened in 2012, 2007, and 2000.

On the other hand, when USCIS fails to devote sufficient resources, backlogs can get way out of hand. That’s what happened in the mid-1990s, and it appears to be happening now, as well.

Falling Behind

Another way to evaluate this problem is to measure how efficiently USCIS beats back its backlogs. If USCIS processed every citizenship application it received in a given year, plus the applications that were pending from the previous year, that would yield a “backlog completion” of 100%.

In reality, USCIS achieved a backlog completion rate of 77% in 2009—a 30-year high—and this number has been trending downward ever since. There was a 10-point drop in backlog completion between 2016 and 2017 (from 63% to 53%), but backlog completion crept back up to 67% in 2019 before falling drastically again in 2020 to 47%. This is the lowest backlog completion rate since 2007 (39%).

Surging Wait Times

Growing backlogs have direct and negative consequences for immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens: They have to wait longer for their applications to be processed by the government.

Here the trend is unmistakable: Between 2012 and 2016, median application processing times hovered between about 4.5 to 6 months, before shooting past 8 months in 2017 and hovering at about 10 months in 2018 and 9 months in 2020. Compounding the worrisome trend, starting in March 2020 the coronavirus lockdown postponed the final steps for naturalization—interviews and oath ceremonies—until offices reopened in June 2020. 

Denial Rates Have Risen

Another factor that directly affects immigrants is the share of naturalization applications that are denied, potentially closing off the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. (Denials can be appealed, but this process is expensive and uncertain.)

On the one hand, denial rates have inched up in recent years, from 10.3% in 2016 to 11.4% in 2020.

But looking at the past 3 decades, denial rates used to be quite a bit higher. Although beyond the scope of this report, it’s fair to ask why citizenship application denial rates were well below 3% since the early 1950s, then suddenly jumped to 7.5% in 1992, and have never gone lower since then. Meanwhile, nearly one third of all citizenship applications were denied in 1999 and 2000, before dropping back down to a “new normal” in this decade.

Time will tell whether denial rates remain elevated in the years to come.

What Are the Best (and Worst) Cities to Become a U.S. Citizen?

While the national trends tell one story about U.S. citizenship, there is immense variation by location. Immigrants in some cities are encountering minimal backlogs, short wait times, and convenient locations for the citizenship interview, while immigrants in other cities face large backlogs, long (even outrageous) wait times, and an interview location over 100 miles away.

The following table ranks over 100 U.S. metro areas using a novel index that measures relative ease of naturalization.

The Best Cities for Becoming a New American

Cities are ranked below, from best to worst, for becoming a new American based on factors such as median wait time for applications and distance to field office. 

Please note that cities with at least one field office in town will have a value of zero for standardized distance to field office.

For example, immigrants in the greater Louisville area enjoy one of the shortest application processing times in the nation (5.5 months), about a 41% backlog completion rate, and a USCIS field office in town. Relative to other metro areas, Louisville is as good as it gets across all of these weighted factors, and it earns the No. 1 spot on the index.

Meanwhile, the greater Seattle area is at the bottom of the index, with a backlog completion rate of 29.1%. Since backlog completion is a leading indicator of wait time, the Seattle area’s already long median wait time (17.5 months) will likely rise in future years. 

Conclusion

By illuminating national and local trends in new American citizenship, we hope that this report is useful to immigrants, advocates, and state and local government leaders seeking to make the naturalization process more navigable and equitable.

Going forward, Boundless will continue to watch for new trends in the data on U.S. citizenship:

• Will naturalization rates rise or fall, both nationally and locally?

• Will backlogs and wait times continue to rise?

• Will disparities among metro areas and USCIS field offices persist over time?

The Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized immigration and making the naturalization process smoother and more accessible. As part of that effort, the USCIS has now:

1. Reinstated the 2008 version of the civics test, doing away with the 2020 version put in place by former President Trump.

2. Published guidance stating that applicants who are outside the U.S. for one year or more to engage in ministerial or priestly functions will be permitted to use their time away as continuous physical presence in the United States when applying for naturalization.

3. Published guidance that encourages applicants to register to vote through a state’s department of motor vehicles or other state benefit application through positive effects on "good moral standing" - a requirement for applicants. This same guidance also states that an applicant will not be penalized who unknowingly registered to vote before they were a citizen.

4. Implemented a policy that allows certain members of the U.S. military or veterans who served honorably during specifically designated periods and who meet other criteria to now apply for naturalization, even if they are not a green card holder and are living outside the United States.

5. Published a technical update regarding the automatic citizenship of a foreign-born child of a U.S. citizen employee of the U.S. government or member of the U.S. armed forces.

6. Began utilizing video capabilities for interviews and naturalization ceremonies at Department of Defense facilities for eligible military members and their qualifying family members stationed overseas. 

7. Expanded funding opportunities providing grants for citizenship preparation programs across the country.

8. Began deploying the use of video interviews for naturalization applicants, where an applicant comes to a USCIS facility but sits in a different room than the interviewing officer who conducts the interview using video technology, to help meet the requirements of physical distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

9. Reinstated the Outstanding Americans by Choice (ABC) Initiative, which recognizes the outstanding achievements of naturalized U.S. citizens. 

If you have feedback on this report, or suggestions for what Boundless should include in future reports, please contact us at press@boundless.com.

Acknowledgements

This report was researched and written by Doug Rand, co-founder of Boundless Immigration.

Special thanks to Xiao Wang, Alison Moodie and the rest of the Boundless team for their work on this report as well.

We are also grateful for the work of Manuel Pastor’s team at the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California; their data set on naturalization-eligible immigrant populations is extraordinarily helpful.

We also wish to thank the anonymous and hard-working public servants at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who, year after year and quarter after quarter, produce the essential DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data.

Methodology

Data Sources

The following data sources were used in this report as the sources for each bulleted data type. Unless otherwise noted, each of these data sources was accessed on or around May 3, 2021.

Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2019. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Table 20. Petitions for Naturalization Filed, Persons Naturalized, and Petitions for Naturalization Denied: Fiscal Years 1907 to 2019.” 
• Number of citizenship applications filed and processed, FY1990-FY2009
• Denial rate, FY1990-FY2009

Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2019. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Table 23. Persons Naturalized by Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) of Residence: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2019.” 
• Number of immigrants naturalized in FY2019, by metro area

Immigration and Citizenship Data. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, by Category of Naturalization, Case Status, and USCIS Field Office Location” [several quarters]. 
• Number of citizenship applications filed, denied, approved, and pending at year-end, for each USCIS field office, FY2010-FY2019 

Historical National Average Processing Time for All USCIS Offices. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 
• National average processing times for N-400 and other forms, FY2016-FY2020

Archive Data Set: Form N-400 Naturalization Average Cycle Time. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 
• National monthly processing times (also called “cycle times”), FY2012-FY2013 (partial)

Check Case Processing Times. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 
• Median and maximum processing times for each field office, recorded each month between July 2018 and December 2020.

Field Offices. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 
• Required USCIS field office location based on applicant ZIP code

Download the data here.

Definition of Terms

Backlog completion: The number of citizenship applications processed within a fiscal year, divided by the sum of (a) the number of citizenship applications filed within the same fiscal year and (b) the year-end backlog as of the prior fiscal year (expressed as a percentage)

Citizenship application: Form N-400, the application for naturalization administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

Denial rate: Within a given time period, the number of citizenship applications denied, divided by the number of citizenship applications processed

DHS: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Distance to field office: Number of miles between the largest city within a given metro area and the location of the field office required by USCIS for residents of that metro area, as estimated using Google Maps (if the required field office is within the metro area, the “distance to field office” is listed as zero)

Field office: The local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) where immigration officials conduct the citizenship interview; applicants for citizenship are assigned to a field office based on the ZIP code of their residence.

Filed: The number of citizenship applications received by USCIS within a given time period

Naturalization rate: The number of immigrants who naturalized in a given metro area (based on DHS data for FY2017) divided by the total estimated number of immigrants eligible for naturalization within that metro area (based on a methodology developed at the University of Southern California, published in 2016, and based on prior Census data)

Processed: The number of citizenship applications approved plus the number of citizenship applications denied by USCIS within a given time period

USCIS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Processing time (average): The national average processing time for a given form based on all field offices within a period of time, as estimated by USCIS

Processing time (max): The time it takes to complete 93% of cases for a given form within a given field office, as estimated by USCIS; for purposes of this report, this number is the 12-month average between January and December 2019.

Processing time (median): The time it takes to complete 50% of cases for a given form within a given field office, as estimated by USCIS; for purposes of this report, this number is the 12-month average between January and December 2019.

Wait time: The total time it takes to become naturalized once an application is submitted. This time includes the application processing time as well as the time needed to take citizenship tests and the oath ceremony. Synonymous with “Processing time” for purposes of this report.

Year-end backlog: The number of citizenship applications listed “pending” (i.e. not processed) by USCIS at the end of a given fiscal year

Calculation of Rankings

Best Cities for Becoming a New American

The overall index is derived from three objective criteria for each metro area:

1. Backlog completion (as of FY2019)

2. Median wait time (12-month average between January and December 2019, when data was collected for this report)

3. Distance to field office

For a metro area with more than one field office (New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia), backlog completion is calculated based on the total number of applications filed, processed, and backlogged across all field offices within that metro area. Median wait time is averaged across all field offices within the metro area, weighted by the percentage of applications filed with each individual field office. Distance to field office is zero.

For a metro area with only one field office, backlog completion and median wait time reflect the values from that field office. Distance to field office is zero.

For a metro area with no field office, backlog completion and median wait time reflect the values from the field office required by USCIS for applicants from that metro area. Distance to field office is the number of miles between the largest city within the metro area and the location of the required field office, as estimated using Google Maps.

Each criterion was normalized as a percentage between the maximum/best (100%) and the minimum/worst (0%) value that appeared across all metro areas. For example, the normalized numbers for Jacksonville, Florida were 35% for backlog completion (relatively poor), 88% for wait time (relatively good), and 100% for field office distance (since there is a field office in Jacksonville).

The overall index value is the weighted average of these normalized numbers:

• Backlog completion: Weighted as 12.5%

• Median wait time: Weighted as 75.0%

• Distance to field office: Weighted as 12.5%

Wait time is deliberately upweighted, since this criterion is likely to be most salient for a citizenship applicant. Backlog completion, by comparison, is more of a warning signal of future wait times, and field office distance represents a potential one-time hassle to travel to the citizenship interview. In the event of a missing criterion, the overall index was reweighted accordingly.

The overall index value represents how close a given metro area is to the best observed values across all criteria. For example, Cleveland has an overall index of 95 points because this is the weighted average of its normalized backlog completion (62.8% as good as the best metro area, which happens to be Portland, Maine), wait time (100%, the best of all the metro areas), and distance to field office (100%, as is true for all metro areas that have their own field office).

Note that metro areas are not included if they have an estimated naturalization-eligible immigrant population of less than 10,000, and they have no USCIS field office.

Note on Charts

The year-end backlogs for FY1990-2009 are estimated from DHS data on filing and processing volume. This means that the backlog completion values for FY1991-2010 are based in part on that estimated backlog value for each prior year.

There are apparently no government processing time data publicly available for years prior to FY2012.