Study Finds Racial Differences in Approvals for U.S. Citizenship

A new study led by Emily Ryo, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California, finds that there are racial disparities in who is approved for citizenship during the naturalization process.

Professor Ryo filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for data on naturalization applications with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in August 2018. But when officials were slow to cooperate with her requests, in July 2020 she filed a federal lawsuit. The litigation took more than a year but she finally got the data she had requested.

Examining data from the 2014-18 period, the research found that the probability of approval for Black males at 89 percent compared to 94 percent for White females and the probability for approval for Blacks from Muslim-majority countries was 86 percent compared to 96 percent for Whites from non-Muslim majority countries. Black women were more likely to be approved for citizenship than Black men.

“U.S. citizenship laws have a long history of formally excluding non-whites, religious minorities, and females,” Professor Ryo said. “We assume all that is in the past because our laws now prohibit those kinds of discrimination. We shouldn’t expect to find continued disparities by race, gender, and religion. So the persistent disparities that we found are surprising and troubling.”

Professor Ryo’s inquiries revealed that, despite laws requiring United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to explain the basis for denying applications, 20 percent of denials in the data were simply missing. Another 14 percent were attributed to reasons such as “Other” and “Secondary Evidence” that are never explained.

The study highlights the need for understanding the possible role of bias in agency decision-making and how structural inequities in the criminal justice system that disproportionately impact certain immigrant groups might become compounded in the immigration adjudication system, Professor Ryo said.

The full study, “The Importance of Race, Gender, and Religion in Naturalization Adjudication in the United States,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. It may be accessed here.


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