Raking In Welfare Not Key For U.S. Citizenship Seekers

Xenophobia Founded on Faulty Assumptions

Legal immigrants chose in recent years to become U.S. citizens because they felt socially welcome, not so they could rake in welfare benefits, new social research shows.

The odds that a legal immigrant would naturalize rose by a factor of five after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, federal law that limited welfare benefits to U.S. citizens among other things, according to the new study by demographers at the University of California, Irvine.

Some people have assumed that meant immigrants made a quick grab for citizenship to stay on welfare rolls. But the researchers also found that the naturalization rate was the same for people on and off welfare after 1996, so researchers had to look more deeply at the data.

Frank D. Bean and Susan K. Brown ran a statistical model on U.S. Census and other data collected from 1998 to 2002 to try to predict the probability that an immigrant would seek U.S. citizenship and to determine if the decision was driven by government money or other factors.

Their analysis, which controlled for other factors, showed that states in the Pacific Northwest, some along the Eastern Seaboard, some of the Great Lakes area states, and Hawaii and Arizona had the higher naturalization rates recently because locals there oppose English-only legislation and believe immigrants work hard and benefit the nation.

The same welcome-mat trend held for the naturalization rates prior to 1996. The hypothesized federal-benefits incentive failed to show up in other ways too. The odds of naturalizing was not greater in states with higher welfare benefits compared to states with lower welfare benefits, Bean, Brown and their co-author Jennifer Van Hook of Bowling Green State University wrote in the journal Social Forces.

"There's no doubt that welfare reform has contributed to increased rates of naturalization--it added value and salience to citizenship," said Bean. "But when we look at all the different forces influencing immigrants to naturalize, money doesn't seem to be the major factor--it's whether the state puts out its welcome mat."

Near 1 million people legally immigrate to the U.S. yearly, more than double the number of illegal immigrants. Immigrants seeking citizenship in the U.S. must be 18 years old, a legal permanent resident and have lived here for at least five years. They are required to show that they can speak, read and write English, pass a test on U.S. history and government and have no felony convictions.

Spouses of U.S. citizens and children of naturalized citizens need only have lived in the United States for three years before they can apply for naturalization.

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Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.