Best (and Worst) Cities for Immigrants Seeking U.S. Citizenship


A report by Boundless Immigration

Feb 4, 2019


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Executive Summary

Nearly 9 million immigrants in the United States are lawful permanent residents (green card holders) currently eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Naturalization—the process by which an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen—brings considerable economic benefits at the individual, regional, and national levels. Naturalized immigrants earn 8-11% more in annual income than non-naturalized immigrants (controlling for variables such as skills, education and fluency in English), suggesting that naturalization leads to better-paying jobs by signaling to employers that a given immigrant has strong English language skills and a long-term commitment to live and work in the United States.

One study of 21 U.S. cities found that if all eligible immigrant residents were to naturalize, their aggregate income would increase by $5.7 billion, yielding an increase in homeownership by over 45,000 people and an increase in tax revenue of $2 billion. Nationally, if half of the eligible immigrant population of the United States naturalized, the increased earnings and demand could boost GDP by $37-52 billion per year.

But barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen have gotten worse over time, and are not evenly distributed across the country. This report uses a novel integration of public data sets to understand national trends in the government’s handling of citizenship applications, as well as barriers at the local level.

What this report covers:

  1. Key Findings
  2. Best (and Worst) Cities to Become a U.S. Citizen
  3. Best (and Worst) Field Offices for Becoming a U.S. Citizen
  4. Methodology

Note: This report is a condensed version of our more comprehensive analysis, “The State of New American Citizenship.” The full report includes a closer inspection of national trends, as well as the likelihood of obtaining U.S. citizenship in various metro areas, the relationship between immigrants’ region of origin and naturalization rate, and more.


Key Findings

Key findings of this report include:

The national trends are worrisome.

  • The processing time for a citizenship application has surged over the past 2 years to over 10 months—double the processing time between 2012 and 2016.
  • These processing times are almost sure to keep rising, because the government has not kept pace with the volume of incoming applications. After a 2-year spike in 2016–2017, the volume of citizenship applications returned to a typical level in 2018—but the government’s backlog processing efficiency remains at the lowest level in a decade.
  • The likelihood that a citizenship application will be denied has risen slightly over the past few years.
  • And becoming a U.S. citizen is much harder in some places than others.

Immigrants in some cities face citizenship application wait times more than four times higher than in other cities.

  • Immigrants in some cities experience a citizenship application denial rate two times higher than the national average.
  • Some cities have 4 or 5 government field offices where immigrants can attend their citizenship interviews; other cities have none and make immigrants travel over 150 miles to the nearest field office.

New rankings reveal the best and worst places to become a U.S. citizen.

  • The top 3 best overall metro areas for immigrants to become U.S. citizens are Cleveland, Ohio; Riverside, California; and Louisville, Kentucky.
  • The worst 3 metro areas for immigrants to become U.S. citizens are all in Texas: Austin, Houston, and Dallas.
  • The top 3 government offices handling citizenship applications most efficiently are in Cleveland, Ohio; Providence, Rhode Island; and Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • The worst 3 government offices handling citizenship applications least efficiently are in St. Paul, Minnesota; Miami, Florida; and Houston, Texas. The maximum wait time in the St. Paul office is now almost two years.
  • The top 3 metro areas with the highest naturalization rate of eligible immigrants are Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • The worst 3 metro areas with the lowest naturalization rate are Fresno, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Dallas, Texas.

What Are the Best (and Worst) Cities to Become a U.S. Citizen?

While the national trends tell one story about U.S. citizenship, there is immense variation by location. Immigrants in some cities are encountering minimal backlogs, short wait times, and convenient locations for the citizenship interview, while immigrants in other cities face large backlogs, long (even outrageous) wait times, and an interview location over 100 miles away.

The following table ranks over 100 U.S. metro areas using a novel index that measures relative ease of naturalization.

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For example, immigrants in the Cleveland area enjoy the shortest application processing time in the nation (4 months), among the highest backlog completion rates (over 71%), and a USCIS field office in town. Relative to other metro areas, Cleveland—at 95 points—is as good as it gets across all of these weighted factors, and it earns the #1 spot on the index.

Meanwhile, the Houston area is near the bottom of the index. Immigrants here are up against the longest wait times in the nation (17.3 months), and that number is probably going to rise in future years, since backlog completion rate is a leading indicator of wait time and Houston is nearly the worst (only 35%).

The only city where immigrants would fare worse is Austin—because they’ll have to go through the same struggling field office in Houston, but travel 80 miles to get there as there is no office in Austin.


What Are the Best (and Worst) Field Offices for Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

In 2017, USCIS ran 86 field offices that both handled citizenship applications and had been in business for more than a year.

These field offices are not distributed evenly by immigrant population—for example, while the New York, Los Angeles, and Miami metro areas each have 4–5 field offices, some states (such as Illinois and Colorado) have only one field office to serve all of their cities. And some cities with a sizable citizenship-eligible population, such as McAllen, Texas or Bakersfield, California, have no field office at all.

Therefore, the efficiency of a single USCIS field office doesn’t tell the whole story about the ease of naturalization for a given metro area’s immigrant population—for that, see the table in the section above.

The following table ranks all of the USCIS field offices using a novel index that measures relative ease of naturalization for those immigrants compelled to use it. (USCIS assigns a field office based on the ZIP code of the applicant.) Instead of including “distance to field office” as a factor (which would always be zero), this index uses both the median and maximum processing times for each site.

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The field office in Cleveland tops the index, with a typical (median) citizenship application processing time of 4 months, and almost nobody waiting longer than 12.3 months. These are the fastest times in the nation, though they could grow in future years given that the Cleveland field office doesn’t exhibit quite the highest backlog completion rate. (That honor goes to Portland, Maine, which ended the year with almost no applications left to process.)

On the bottom of the index is the field office in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a typical processing time of 15.1 months and some immigrants waiting nearly 2 years (23.5 months). The field office in Miami isn’t much better, though, with a typical processing time of 16.2 months and a maximum of 21.2 months. Given the Miami field office’s worst-in-the-nation backlog completion rate (30.1%), its processing times could grow to clinch the bottom spot next year.

Of course, relatively few immigrants filed citizenship applications in Cleveland (4,828) and Portland, Maine (1,089), while there was considerably more volume in Miami (16,609) and St. Paul (15,422).

But the correlation between field office index and application volume is fairly weak (r = -0.30). Plenty of high-volume field offices are near the top of the rankings, like Boston and San Bernardino, California, while low-volume field offices like Harlingen, Texas are near the bottom.

Perhaps even more perplexing is the variation within some large cities. As mentioned above, immigrants compelled to apply for citizenship through the downtown Miami field office (ranked No. 85) are in for a long wait, while it’s relatively smooth sailing just 12 miles up the road in the Hialeah field office (ranked No. 18).

Some field offices are outliers in other ways, as well. The field offices in West Palm Beach; Orlando; Imperial, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Fort Myers, Florida all denied citizenship applications at nearly twice the national average rate. Why this would be is beyond the scope of this report.


Methodology

Calculation of Rankings

Best Cities for Becoming a New American

The overall index is derived from three objective criteria for each metro area:

1. Backlog completion (as of FY2017)
2. Median wait time (6-month average between July and December 2018, when data was collected for this report)
3. Distance to field office

For a metro area with more than one field office (New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia), backlog completion is calculated based on the total number of applications filed, processed, and backlogged across all field offices within that metro area. Median wait time is averaged across all field offices within the metro area, weighted by the percentage of applications filed with each individual field office. Distance to field office is zero.

For a metro area with only one field office, backlog completion and median wait time reflect the values from that field office. Distance to field office is zero.

For a metro area with no field office, backlog completion and median wait time reflect the values from the field office required by USCIS for applicants from that metro area. Distance to field office is the number of miles between the largest city within the metro area and the location of the required field office, as estimated using Google Maps.

Each criterion was normalized as a percentage between the maximum/best (100%) and the minimum/worst (0%) value that appeared across all metro areas. For example, the normalized numbers for Jacksonville, Florida were 35% for backlog completion (relatively poor), 88% for wait time (relatively good), and 100% for field office distance (since there is a field office in Jacksonville).

The overall index value is the weighted average of these normalized numbers:

  • Backlog completion: Weighted as 12.5%
  • Median wait time: Weighted as 75.0%
  • Distance to field office: Weighted as 12.5%

Wait time is deliberately upweighted, since this criterion is likely to be most salient for a citizenship applicant. Backlog completion, by comparison, is more of a warning signal of future wait times, and field office distance represents a potential one-time hassle to travel to the citizenship interview. In the event of a missing criterion, the overall index was reweighted accordingly.

The overall index value represents how close a given metro area is to the best observed values across all criteria. For example, Cleveland has an overall index of 95 points because this is the weighted average of its normalized backlog completion (62.8% as good as the best metro area, which happens to be Portland, Maine), wait time (100%, the best of all the metro areas), and distance to field office (100%, as is true for all metro areas that have their own field office).

Note that metro areas are not included if they have an estimated naturalization-eligible immigrant population of less than 10,000, and they have no USCIS field office.

Where backlog completion is noted “n/a,” USCIS provides data only for FY2017.


Best Field Offices for Becoming a New American

The overall index is derived from three objective criteria for each field office:

1. Backlog completion (as of FY2017)
2. Median wait time (6-month average between July and December 2018, when data was collected for this report)
3. Maximum wait time (6-month average between July and December 2018, when data was collected for this report)

Each criterion was normalized as a percentage between the maximum/best (100%) and the minimum/worst (0%) value that appeared across all field offices. For example, the normalized numbers for Sacramento, California were 29% for backlog completion (relatively poor), 64% for median wait time (better than average), and 83% for maximum wait time (relatively good).

The overall index value is the weighted average of these normalized numbers:

  • Backlog completion: Weighted as 25.0%
  • Median wait time: Weighted as 37.5%
  • Maximum wait time: Weighted as 37.5%

Wait times are deliberately upweighted, since they are likely to be most salient for a citizenship applicant. Backlog completion, by comparison, is more of a warning signal of future wait times. In the event of a missing criterion, the overall index was reweighted accordingly.

The overall index value represents how close a field office is to the best observed values across all criteria. For example, the Cleveland field office has an overall index of 91% because this is the weighted average of its normalized backlog completion (63% as good as the best field office, which happens to be in Portland, Maine), median wait time (100%, the best of all the field offices), and maximum wait time (100%, the best of all the field offices).

Note that certain field offices were not included if USCIS provides no data on their operations for all or most years prior to FY2018. Where backlog completion is noted “n/a,” USCIS provides data only for FY2017.


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