Unblocking access to citizenship in the global South: Should the process be decentralised?

More Citizenship, More Inequities? Lessons from Localised U.S. Naturalisation

Irene Bloemraad (University of California, Berkeley)[i]

In her call to localise naturalisation in the global South, Bronwen Manby embeds two contentions: first, that acquiring citizenship is an important goal, and second, that decentralising the process will increase naturalisation. She acknowledges a potential problem, namely the uneven application of the law across jurisdictions and, perhaps, also across groups of noncitizens. Such variability should worry anyone concerned about discrimination and the fair, neutral application of law. However, Manby concludes that current practice in Africa is already largely arbitrary. Further, current practice only provides a path to citizenship for, at best, a few hundred immigrants per year or, in some countries, to virtually no one. Faced with no real access to citizenship, Manby advocates a decentralised system.

Others can speak to the wisdom or practicality of her proposal on the African continent or to other regions of the global South, such as South America. I instead turn to the history of U.S. naturalisation and immigrants’ experiences in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this period, immigrants’ acquisition of citizenship occurred in precisely the localised fashion that Manby envisions. What lessons can we draw?

I use this history to evaluate whether decentralisation increased naturalisation (it did, for some), whether it led to significant local variation (it did, for many), and who benefited (some Europeans, very few Mexicans). Using decentralised naturalisation to increase citizenship comes at the possible price of generating real or perceived inequities.

Such variability must be weighed against the benefits of citizenship. These are modest but real in the global North, including protection from deportation, slight gains in jobs or income, and somewhat more political participation. But it is unclear how much they apply in the global South. The gains of naturalisation in advanced liberal democracies also accrue largely to migrants from the global South, not to those from politically and economically similar countries.

The dangers of decentralisation are likely most acute if localised variation in naturalisation comes to overlap with social group boundaries, be it by tribe, religion, caste, economic marginalization or other distinctions that then exacerbate and reify problematic group-based distinctions. If this happens, the effects on politics, economic incorporation, and the well-being of later generations could magnify harms to those excluded from citizenship. This trade-off must be faced head-on, requiring that any decentralisation plan is accompanied, at a minimum, with transparency in decision-making and monitoring of naturalisation trends.

The Little-known History of Local Naturalisation in the United States

The right to control naturalisation was one of the reasons given by those who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence for renouncing their ties to Britain. Continuing the colonies’ practice of granting local citizenship, the early Articles of Confederation left citizenship to the individual states of the new union. This arrangement quickly proved unworkable, however, since it was not clear whether someone naturalised in one colony possessed reciprocal rights in another. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 thus empowered the federal government to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalisation.”

One of the first acts of the federal U.S. Congress was passage of the Naturalisation Act of 1790. It infamously reserved naturalisation for “free white persons.” Only after the bloodbath of the Civil War was the law extended to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” with passage of the Naturalisation Act of 1870. Mexican immigrants were also eligible for naturalisation since they were considered white by law. Unlike Europeans, however, Mexicans’ eligibility was a product of foreign relations and international treaties rather than a common acceptance of their whiteness. Asian immigrants were definitively deemed non-white and racially ineligible for citizenship by legislation and the courts. Racial restrictions on naturalisation were only excised from U.S. law in 1952.

The racist history of U.S. citizenship is relatively well-known; yet only few know about the localised and decentralised system of naturalisation that existed for over a century after passage of the 1790 Act. The act was a federal law, and thus applicable across the nation. However, its implementation and the process of granting citizenship was a local affair. Unlike today, there was no federal naturalisation bureaucracy, and applicants did not need to go to a federal court to petition for naturalisation. Rather, applications could be filed with any common law court of record in any state. Local officials were tasked with verifying length of residence, determining an applicant’s “good moral character,” collecting fees, and otherwise determining eligibility.

The Dangers of Decentralisation: Inconsistent Naturalisation

In reality, regardless of federal mandates, the ease of naturalisation depended on local judges, who enjoyed great latitude. Federal law dating from 1802 specified five years of residence, but verification procedures were often poor or non-existent. No formal language or civic knowledge requirements existed, yet some judges required them. One early twentieth-century analyst, John Palmer Gavit, concluded after reviewing thousands of naturalisation petitions and surveying over 400 judges that the process was “subject to the whims, theories, prejudices, and intellectual limitations of the individuals upon whom its enforce­ment devolves,” which meant that “there is hardly any other legal process in our governmental system in which [judges’] …prejudices [and] idiosyncrasies play so large a part.”

Statistical modelling using individual-level data from the U.S. census shows that in 1900, an immigrant’s place of residence influenced naturalisation more than their birthplace, ability to speak English, or literacy. In some cases, judges’ antagonism toward immigrants – or particular groups of immigrants – made naturalisation difficult. In other cases, judges facilitated citizenship acquisition, especially when they had a close relationship to local political party machines that sought to convert new citizens into partisan voters.

But Perhaps More Naturalisation, for Some

Decentralisation thus produced significant variation, but did it increase naturalisation among immigrants? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’, but mostly for European and Canadian immigrants, and likely only for certain immigrant groups in specific political contexts.

We find some evidence of greater access to citizenship in the trajectory of naturalisation following passage of the 1906 Naturalization Act. With this law, the federal U.S. Congress sought to centralise administrative oversight of naturalisation in a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and to standardise the procedures for acquiring citizenship, including the creation of a uniform application form and adjudication procedure. Institutionalisation took years, but already by 1920, inter-state differences in naturalisation had narrowed significantly.

With national standardisation came reduced naturalisation. Drawing on micro-data from the 1900 and 1920 Census, the probability of naturalisation for an immigrant with ten years of residence fell from 49% to 20%. There are hints that those who were not literate were particularly hard hit, becoming less likely to acquire citizenship in 1920 as compared to 1900. Today, an immigrant’s place of residence is not a strong predictor of naturalisation in the United States, especially when compared to the impact of educational attainment, English ability, and length of residence.

Decentralised naturalisation did not, however, help Mexican immigrants to acquire citizenship. One analysis of naturalisation applications in South Texas between 1848 and 1906 found that only 1.4 percent of Mexican immigrants were successful in acquiring citizenship, compared to 44 percent of Europeans.

The implication of these historical U.S. experiences is that naturalisation might rise under Manby’s plan, but certain immigrant groups – defined by ethnic origin, language, religion, human capital or other attributes – will likely benefit more than others. Access to citizenship might increase, but so might inequities. Transparency and monitoring of naturalisation decisions by third-party groups might help mitigate some inequities. But because immigrant groups settle in different parts of a country, variation in decentralised decision-making could still create inter-group inequalities over time, even with limited discrimination in any particular locality.

Why Did Localities Vary? The Lure and Dangers of Political Competition

Manby acknowledges that decentralisation will probably produce variation in local rates of naturalisation. This was the case in nineteenth century America. If variability is random, then differences might not produce resentment. But in reality, of course, there are patterns to why some places invite immigrants into citizenship while other places seek to exclude them, as well as who is welcomed into citizenship and who is excluded.

During the period of localised naturalisation in the United States, one determinant of civic welcome was the extent to which political parties were competitive in local elections and consequently sought to make voters out of immigrants. Political outreach could be benign – an invitation to participate in the American democratic process – but it could also be rife with corruption and graft as politicians hustled for supporters. Political agents would pay immigrants’ naturalisation fee, produce witnesses to attest to residency and moral character, or even offer bribes to immigrants or judges to swell the number of people who would cast a ballot for a particular candidate or party.

Any proposal to decentralise naturalisation in the contemporary period must think carefully through the possible consequences for fair and free elections.

The Local Warmth of Welcome

We can also imagine that local patterns of naturalisation varied based on the costs and benefits of citizenship in a particular place. Indeed, just as the process of naturalisation was decentralised, the advantages and drawbacks of citizenship varied across U.S. states in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. In some places, (White, male) immigrants could vote even if they were not U.S. citizens. States also had diverse “alienage” laws, using citizenship or the intention to naturalise as grounds to give or deny professional licenses (for being a notary public, teacher or saloon owner, for example) or to own real estate or a business.

Perhaps surprisingly, among the ten U.S. states with the biggest foreign-born population in 1920, European immigrants were mostly like to be citizens in the three states with the fewest “citizens-only” restrictions. This implies that the “carrot” of an immigrant-friendly environment drove naturalisation more than the “stick” of restrictive alienage laws, although the story is not so clear when we look at the right to own property. The effect of decentralisation on naturalisation will likely depend not only on whether and how local officials facilitate citizenship access, but also on the local warmth of the welcome or possible benefits of citizenship.

Does Citizenship Matter?

This conclusion raises the larger question of why it is worth promoting access to citizenship in the first place. If a possible – even likely – consequence of decentralisation is variation in naturalisation, some of which may be experienced as inequities across place and groups, is greater access to citizenship for some worth the potential cost to fairness and equal treatment? Manby does not take on this question in depth. At a minimum, she suggests, her proposal might help some immigrants and, especially, their children avoid statelessness.

But how much does citizenship matter to the daily lives of most global South residents? In the contemporary United States, citizenship guarantees the right to territory and protection from deportation, the ability to travel with a highly regarded passport, broader rights in the judicial system, greater access to social benefits, eligibility for certain jobs or occupations barred to noncitizens, the ability to more easily sponsor immigrant parents or minor children to immigrate, greater access to educational loans and scholarships, and the ability to vote and run for office. There is also some evidence that, across Western democracies, holding citizenship status increases political and civic engagement (even in places that allow noncitizen voting), enhances national identification, and increases social integration. Acquiring citizenship also appears to provide an economic ‘premium’ for naturalised immigrants, improving income, employment, and occupational prestige, although the wage premium seems to be modest, holding other personal attributes constant.

Turning again to the historical record in the United States, we also see hints that European immigrants’ naturalisation early in the twentieth century provided benefits to their children, even if the children’s own status was secure due to automatic birthright citizenship. When immigrant parents’ naturalised, this raised their occupational attainment, which in turn allowed their children to secure greater educational attainment and labour market success compared to the children of immigrants who did not acquire U.S. citizenship. 

It is not clear whether such citizenship benefits – to the first or second generations – would also flow to those living in the global South, but knowing the range of possible benefits as weighed against the likely inequities should be a critical part of judging the trade-offs of any localised naturalisation scheme.


[i] This commentary draws on prior research published as Irene Bloemraad and Reed Ueda (2006),  Naturalisation and Nationality in Companion to American Immigration; Irene Bloemraad (2006), Citizenship Lessons from the Past: The Contours of Immigrant Naturalisation in the Early Twentieth Century, Social Science Quarterly; and Cybelle Fox and Irene Bloemraad (2015), White by Law, Not in Practice: Explaining the Gulf in Citizenship Acquisition between Mexican and European Immigrants, 1930, Social Forces.