America should naturalize more immigrants to benefit economy

A wide body of research shows that immigrants on the whole help grow our economy. One of the most compelling data points is that immigrants have provided half of the growth in our workforce over the past decade. Moreover, immigrants have started 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Immigrants who become American citizens give our country a dimension that homogenous societies often lack. They add to the vibrancy that only a diverse population generates. Simply think of the innovative companies that naturalized citizens like Sergey Brin have started here, along with the many rich cultural contributions that immigrants have brought to the arts.

Unfortunately, our complex laws and outdated priorities are causing the United States to realize only a fraction of the potential that immigrants can bring to our national growth. We also lag behind Australia and Canada in naturalization rates, which means that we are not doing a good enough job turning legal immigrants into citizens. But this week, the George Bush Institute hosted a naturalization ceremony that welcomed 49 new citizens to our nation. They came from 20 different nations, and possessed skills and professional interests that ranged from pursuing a master of business administration and getting into health care to starting a company that helps newborns learn how to sleep. Now that is real entrepreneurialism.

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Most of all, the ceremony was a powerful moment bringing together people of very different backgrounds and conveying upon them alike the most important title in our country. Citizenship offers many advantages, but it particularly has economic advantages. Naturalized citizens tend to earn more than noncitizens and are employed at higher rates. This gap exists because naturalized immigrants have higher levels of education, better language skills, and more work experience in the United States than noncitizens. They are also less likely to live below the poverty line than noncitizens. The extra earning power is not only good news for their families, it is good news for our economy. The additional earnings can be channeled into the broader economy through consumer spending or longer term investments like home ownership and higher education.

Naturalized citizens also grow their new neighborhoods and communities through civic participation. Between 1996 to 2012, there was a 6 percent increase with immigrant citizens or native born children of immigrants registering to vote. Meanwhile, there was a 6 percent decrease with rest of the population. The emphasis on civic participation is likely due to the unique commitment of naturalized citizens to their new home. Shabiha Nymphi, originally from Malaysia, spoke at the ceremony about her desire to “give back” to the community through her work in health care. That refrain “give back” is common among immigrants who become citizens.

So with all these benefits, why are not more individuals naturalizing? The most commonly cited barrier is the lack of English language proficiency, often due to the fact that the process of adults attaining it can be difficult to navigate and expensive. Finding courses offered during nonworking hours and being able to afford them can deter even the most determined future citizens. The private sector is alleviating some of these barriers.

One of the important indicators of success in the United States is English language proficiency. Some employers have begun proactively offering English language classes to their immigrant workers. While this benefits the company, it also creates an opportunity for an immigrant to thrive in the United States. The private sector can also adopt flexible work policies for immigrant workers who are working toward naturalization. Providing generous leave to allow immigrants to attend the required appointments with Citizenship and Immigration Services, or to study American culture and civics, could encourage workers to start the naturalization process.

To its credit, Dallas in Texas is showing how the public sector can do its part by educating immigrants who are eligible to naturalize. Dallas City Hall recognizes the value that citizenship brings to communities and is now partnering with local organizations to promote naturalization among eligible immigrants. Other cities such as Dayton in Ohio and Louisville in Kentucky have implemented similar programs. As President Bush said at the ceremony, “The United States of America is in many ways the most successful of nations. Historically, where immigration is concerned, we are also the most welcoming of nations. These two facts are related.”

Remaining the most welcoming of nations will allow the United States to enjoy success. Assimilating those who arrive here seeking opportunity will also lead to a stronger and more dynamic country. May we all do our part to grow our great nation by turning legal immigrants into fellow citizens.

Laura Collins is the director of the George Bush Institute and South Methodist University Economic Growth Initiative located in Dallas.