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Citizenship Disparities

By Emily Ryo and Reed Humphrey. Full text. 

Citizenship is “nothing less than the right to have rights,” wrote Chief Justice Warren in his Perez v. Brownell dissent. Yet no study to date has been able to systematically investigate agency decisions to grant or deny citizenship in an administrative process called naturalization adjudication. This Article presents the first comprehensive empirical study of contemporary naturalization adjudication outcomes in the United States. Drawing on new and unique administrative data obtained through extensive Freedom of Information Act litigation, this study analyzes over 2.6 million naturalization decisions made by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) between 2015 and 2018. These decisions were made by 87 USCIS field offices located throughout the United States.

First, our analysis provides critical new insights on the extent and nature of inequalities present in the naturalization adjudication system. Specifically, our findings reveal large and troubling disparities across USCIS field offices in approval rates and adjudication times. For example, some field offices have predicted approval rates as low as 79%, while others have predicted approval rates as high as 97%. Likewise, there are wide variations in adjudication times: average predicted adjudication times are as low as 136 days in some field offices, while others are as high as 266 days. Second, our analysis shows that some of the key predictors of approvals and adjudication times are the racial, political, and economic climates of the local communities where the field offices are located. For example, approval odds are significantly lower for applications adjudicated by field offices located in White-majority counties and in Republican counties. In addition, the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the approval odds. In terms of adjudication time, one of the key predictors of longer adjudication time is the location of the field office in an enforcement-focused county.

These results are consistent with our argument that citizenship is the ultimate form of social closure, and naturalization adjudication is a powerful tool of boundary policing in service of that social closure. Although the U.S. Constitution requires uniform national standards for naturalization adjudication, in practice, boundary policing occurs at the local level. Therefore, field offices’ local contexts play an important role in shaping agency decisions on naturalization applications. This study builds on growing legal scholarship that emphasizes the importance of geographical decentralization in the development of the contemporary federal administrative state. The current study’s findings make unique theoretical and empirical contributions to an emerging body of research that documents deeply troubling disparities in administrative and judicial decision-making in immigration law. We conclude by discussing some of the key policy implications of these findings for citizenship and the need for equality, consistency, and transparency in naturalization adjudication.