Why Cities Should Invest in Citizenship: Helping Immigrants Achieve Citizenship Yields Major Returns -- and It's the Right Thing to Do

It is widely recognized that gaining citizenship is a transformative social experience for immigrants and our nation. Naturalization ceremonies are often emotional events, and the integration of immigrants has shaped the face of America. Less widely appreciated is the fact that citizenship is a powerful source of economic empowerment and strength both for the individuals who gain citizenship, as well as the cities in which they live. In the past month the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and Citi Community Development unveiled new research conducted by the Urban Institute on the economic effects of naturalization on immigrants and their local economies. "The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities" shows that naturalization may lead to an average increase in individual earnings of 8.9%, or $3,200, in the first year after becoming a U.S. citizen. If all eligible immigrants were to naturalize, employment and homeownership rates among eligible immigrants may also rise. Cities also reap economic benefits from naturalization. If all of the eligible immigrants across the 21 U.S. cities studied were to become citizens, their increased employment rate and earnings would generate millions in new tax revenues - $2 million per year in cities with smaller immigrant populations, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Reading, Pennsylvania, and up to $152 million per year in Chicago, $364 million in Los Angeles, and a whopping $789 million in New York City. The report also reveals encouraging findings for resource-constrained cities: the effects of naturalization may cause the cost to local governments of providing public benefits to either remain relatively steady or actually decrease. In New York City for example, it is estimated that the net costs of providing public benefits would decrease by $34 million per year if all eligible immigrants became citizens. These results demonstrate that naturalization can help lift immigrants out of poverty, reducing reliance on government assistance in many instances and can generate new economic opportunities for both immigrants and for cities. Despite the powerful economic promise of citizenship, nearly 9 million immigrants across the country are currently eligible to naturalize but have not yet done so, and less than 10% of them do so per year. In New York City alone there are nearly 650,000 immigrants who could become citizens, and thousands upon thousands more in cities across the country. Cities across the U.S. have a clear role to play in ensuring their immigrant communities have support during the naturalization process by creating programs that break down barriers. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this fall that the city will start to provide free citizenship application assistance and financial empowerment services at key library branches around the city starting in 2016. The new program is a public-private collaboration between the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Library, Citi Community Development, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. And across the United States, municipalities have also come together with Citi under a new coalition, Cities for Citizenship, to collectively pursue greater naturalization rates across the country. These types of programs strengthen cities' economic backbones and reflect America's greatest aspirations -- that all who desire to build a home in America have an opportunity to join its citizenry. Nisha Agarwal is NYC Commissioner for the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. Bob Annibale is Global Director of Citi Community Development and Inclusive Finance.