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Black and Hispanic immigrants less likely to be approved for US citizenship, study finds

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Story at a glance

  • A new study looked at racial and ethnic disparities among immigrants who applied for U.S. citizenship.
  • Overall, applicants of color, particularly men and those from Muslim-majority countries, are at a disadvantage.
  • Black males were 5 percent less likely to be approved for U.S. citizenship when compared to white females.

A new analysis of immigration data reveals Black and Hispanic immigrants are less likely to be approved for U.S. citizenship than white immigrants. 

A newly published study examined disparities in who was granted approval for U.S. citizenship by race, ethnicity, gender and religion between October 2014 and March 2018. The results found non-white applicants and Hispanic applicants are less likely to be approved than non-Hispanic white applicants, while applicants from Muslim-majority countries are less likely to be approved than applicants from other countries. 

Black males had a probability of citizenship approval at 89 percent, while white females had a 94 percent probability of approval — which means 8,000 Black males could have obtained naturalization approval during the study period had their approval rate been equal to that of white females. 

The probability for Black applicants from Muslim-majority countries, like Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan, was 87 percent, compared to 93 percent for females from non-Muslim majority countries.  

“U.S. citizenship laws have a long history of formally excluding non-whites, religious minorities, and females. 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,” said Emily Ryo, professor at University of Southern California and lead author of the study, in a statement


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Naturalization is the process of becoming a U.S. citizen and grants immigrants a host of new rights, privileges and opportunities. The process requires an immigrant live in the U.S. for a specified period of time, be at least 18-years-old, demonstrate required knowledge of English and U.S. history and be of “good moral character.” 

However, researchers argued that historically there’s been little understanding around how the U.S. determines who gets approved and who does not.  

In fact, Ryo had to file a request to access the naturalization data under the Freedom of Information Act with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in August 2018. ln July 2020, she had to file a federal lawsuit to finally get ahold of the data.  

With the data secured and upon further analysis, Ryo found in 2015, 9.4 percent of nonmilitary applications resulted in denials for naturalization and that increased to 10.3 percent in 2016. Those figures represent tens of thousands of immigrants denied, 75,117 total naturalization application denials in 2015 and 85,364 in 2016. 

Ryo also found that despite laws requiring USCIS to explain the basis for denying an applicant naturalization, 20 percent of denials in the data obtained were “simply missing.” 

Another 14 percent were attributed to reasons like “other” and “secondary evidence” that were never explained further.  

Ryo said her study highlights the need for the public to understand the possible role bias plays in how the U.S. federal government makes decisions and how structural inequities in the criminal justice system disproportionately impact certain immigrant groups that become compounded in the immigration adjudication system. 

Overall, Ryo found applicants of color, particularly men and those from Muslim-majority countries, are at a disadvantage, which could have a multitude of explanations. 

“In the end, naturalization cases are decided by individual people who arrive at their determination from a whole host of experiences that may lead to intentional or unintentional biases and preferences,” said Sarah Bishop, an associate professor at the City University of New York, in the study. 


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