Perhaps a changing political climate has reassured immigrants that they needn’t naturalize to enjoy the benefits of living in the United States. The Obama administration is committed, for example, to extending subsidized health insurance coverage to lawful permanent residents under the Affordable Care Act. And lawful permanent residents who have resided in the United States for five years or more are already eligible for Medicaid, a program that is set to expand dramatically in the years to come. The post-1996 wave of “defensive naturalization” has created a large and growing political constituency that is keen to defend the interests of foreign-born non-citizens, which is in part why the political momentum behind comprehensive immigration reform has been growing.
Another way of looking at the decline in naturalization rates is that families are weighing the costs and benefits of citizenship and deciding that it’s not worth the trouble. That is, if the $680 fee that Emanuel and Gutierrez write about is too steep a price to pay for naturalization, naturalization is not actually worth $680 to them, possibly because lawful permanent residents have access to many if not most of the federal, state and local benefits, including subsidized health insurance coverage, that are available to citizens. Citizenship confers the right to participate in the U.S. political process, and of course this right is very important to some. But it’s not quite as important to others. Rather than cut the $680 fee, Emanuel and Gutierrez could achieve their stated goal of increasing the naturalization rate by calling for trimming benefits for non-citizens. But doing so would anger the immigrant voters who were part of the post-1996 “defensive naturalization” wave, and so it is a non-starter for Democrats.
Conservatives are less concerned about courting a backlash from immigrant voters and more concerned about dependency. As Byron York recently reported, in August 2012 a group of four Republican senators – Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Pat Roberts of Kansas – wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing their dismay about the criteria used to evaluate applicants for legal permanent residence in the U.S. While American consular officers are allowed to consider whether immigration applicants are likely to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, they are not allowed to consider whether the applicant in question might make use of Medicaid, food stamps and various other means-tested benefits. This is despite the fact that, as York explains, federal law explicitly states that any immigration applicant who “is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible.” Granted, the definition of who is and is not a “public charge” will vary. But among conservatives, at least, including the large number who believe there is a place for a limited safety net, the idea that we ought to admit immigrants who are likely to prove economically self-reliant over those who are not makes intuitive sense.