McGowan: U.S. Citizenship in a Bull Market

February 26, 2021

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

During the years I taught ethics at Butler University, I asked my students what word they heard most. The word? Diversity. I also asked them what their parents said to them when they did something stupid with a bunch of friends. I requested they finish this sentence: “If your friends jumped off . . . ” Around 95 percent said a ‘bridge,” “roof”  or “cliff.” 

There was little diversity. However, when I was young and did something stupid with friends, my Mom asked me, “If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that, too?” She had narrowed the jump to one, single structure. She was born in Germany and came over on the boat. The Brooklyn Bridge meant something to all those immigrants from Europe. It meant hope. It meant a new life. It meant freedom. Coming to our shores and becoming an American citizen was highly valued.

How much is it valued today? Several answers avail themselves.

The easiest way, and likely the least satisfying, is to look at naturalization fees. In 1989, the naturalization fee was $60. The fee went to $90 in 1991, $95 in 1994, $225 in 1999, $260 in 2002, $320 in 2003 and $595 plus a biometric fee, for fingerprinting costs, of $80 in 2007. In 2014, the naturalization fee was 640 plus an $85 biometric fee. On July 31, 2020, the filing fee was announced as $1,170, but the cost met with resistance and was scrapped. It is currently at $725, $640 for filing plus the $85 biometric fee. So, the simple answer is $725, a 1,200 percent increase in 31 years. The value of U.S. citizenship has increased dramatically.

Yet, people appear happy to pay the fees associated with naturalization. Between 2008 and 2017, the naturalized population varied from 620,000 immigrants to a little bit more than one million annually. In 2017, 707,000 immigrants were naturalized. Naturalized citizens appear to know that being a legal permanent resident (LPR) costs more, at $1,285, than naturalization fees. As well, the LPR “green card” must be renewed every 10 years. Currently, the renewal fee is $540. It pays to go through the naturalization process rather than acquiring a green card.

Data show that getting naturalized pays in other ways, too. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) observed that, “Naturalized citizens are, on average, better educated than immigrants who have not become citizens. In 2017, 36 percent of naturalized adults (ages 25 and older) possessed a bachelor’s degree, compared with 26 percent of noncitizen and 32 percent of native-born adults. At the same time, 19 percent of naturalized immigrant adults had not completed high school — a smaller share than among non-citizens (37 percent) but a larger one than among the U.S. born (9 percent).” So inasmuch as education and economic success are intertwined, naturalization makes financial sense.

Indeed, the MPI stated that, as opposed to LPRs, “Naturalized citizens also fare comparatively well on important economic outcomes. In 2017, the median earnings for naturalized men and women ($52,300 and $42,500, respectively) were higher than median earnings for non-citizens ($35,700 for men and $28,500 for women) and on par with those of U.S.-born individuals ($52,300 and $42,000). Median household income for naturalized citizens ($66,000) was higher than for households headed by both non-citizens ($47,300) and the U.S. born ($60,800).” The data from the MPI suggest that citizenship results in an $5,000 annual gain for citizenship over green card holders. For American-born citizens, the aggregated total is even higher. Over a 40-year working life, that is a $200,000 difference.

Much of the difference between naturalized citizens and green-card holders, as researchers such as Ayelet Sachar notes, involves the characteristics of certain immigrants. Sachar said that “the ultra-rich from the rest of the world . . . are willing to dish out hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain a freshly-minted passport in their new ‘home country’” and criticized “a world where not all passports are treated equally at border crossings.” Sachar, while disturbed that some immigrants come with advantages and are treated differently, at least helps answer the question regarding “what for many is the most sacrosanct non-market good: membership in a political community.” In his words, citizenship in countries like America are worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Given the preceding data, Sachar, in a backhanded way, is correct.

Finally, naturalized citizens have notably higher homeownership rates than non-citizens. Similar to the native born, 66 percent of naturalized migrants lived in owned housing units in 2017, compared with 35 percent of non-citizens. Investigating this disparity uncovers the great value of citizenship, namely, the protection of individual rights, for instance property rights. Our country has stability of law, the product of a legal system that relies on stare decisis, Latin for “let the decision stand.”  Stare decisis enables the law to be stable and predictable. Many immigrants would live in America because their governments rely not on the rule of law, but on the will of a ruler. In the U.S., though, laws and actions of government that do not show discretion or do not reflect the law are considered “arbitrary and capricious.”

Perhaps the greatest example of the value of stability and predictability involved the presidential election of 2000. After two recounts following the procedures established by law in Florida, a court case was brought before the Supreme Court. It ruled that the law was followed and that any more recounting would depend on who was counting the ballots.

Naturally, the media were upset that President Bush had won, so they took it upon themselves to do a recount. Three different newspapers did the counting, all of their recounts showed that Bush had won, but interestingly, each newspaper had Bush winning by a different amount . . . it depended on who did the counting. The newspaper recount was arbitrary and capricious.

So, how much is the presidency worth? Citizens have a share of that value.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. His grandfather, a journalist, left Germany as Hitler came to power. The value of citizenship for him was life itself.


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