A Randomized Controlled Design Reveals Barriers to Citizenship for Low-Income Immigrants

A Randomized Controlled Design Reveals Barriers to Citizenship for Low-Income Immigrants

By
Jens Hainmueller, Duncan Lawrence, Justin Gest, Michael Hotard, Rey Koslowski, David D. Laitin
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. January
16, 2018

Citizenship endows legal protections and is associated with economic and social gains for immigrants and their communities. In the United States, however, naturalization rates are relatively low. Yet we lack reliable knowledge as to what constrains immigrants from applying. Drawing on data from a public/private naturalization program in New York, this research provides a randomized controlled study of policy interventions that address these constraints. The study tested two programmatic interventions among low-income immigrants who are eligible for citizenship. The first randomly assigned a voucher that covers the naturalization application fee among immigrants who otherwise would have to pay the full cost of the fee. The second randomly assigned a set of behavioral nudges, similar to outreach efforts used by service providers, among immigrants whose incomes were low enough to qualify them for a federal waiver that eliminates the application fee. Offering the fee voucher increased naturalization application rates by about 41%, suggesting that application fees act as a barrier for low-income immigrants who want to become US citizens. The nudges to encourage the very poor to apply had no discernible effect, indicating the presence of nonfinancial barriers to naturalization.