What explains the sharp drop in naturalisation applications in the US?

When President Trump announced his new "merit-based" immigration plan last month, he was already well into the third year of his presidency. However, the first half of his term of office already had a profound effect on citizenship and migration. Recent US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data shows that immigrants serving in the US military are being denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians, with denial rates of 16,6% and 11,2% respectively, and that the number of service members applying for US citizenship in fact plummeted since Trump took office. As reported by McClathy, “in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, USCIS reported it received only 648 military applications for citizenship, a 79 percent drop. For comparison, the agency received 189,410 civilian applications, a 34 percent drop”. Part of the explanation, according to attorneys for service members, is Trump’s overall anti-immigrant rhetoric, which we reported on last year when analysing Trump’s travel ban.



There is a tension between the drop in applications by military personnel and Trump’s recent agenda of granting citizenship based on merits. As argued by Michael J. Sullivan in Earned Citizenship, a study which “provides a non-humanitarian justification for legalizing unauthorized immigrants based on their contributions to citizens and institutions in their adopted nation”, military service would particularly merit naturalization. Instead, naturalized military personnel has become subject to potential revocation of US citizenship, as the law stipulates since the early 2000s that “A military member whose naturalization was granted on the basis of military service on or after November 24, 2003 may be subject to revocation of naturalization if he or she was separated from the U.S. armed forces under other than honorable conditions before he or she has served honorably for a period or periods totaling at least five years”.


While Sullivan strongly criticizes this rule which is an example of “state actions that are overly responsive to fears about immigrant loyalties” (think also of the relation between dual citizenship and military service), it fits a global trend of citizenship being revoked on grounds of disloyalty or for endangering state security. While citizenship revocation has already received a lot of attention lately, also from Future Citizen Institute, the latest issue of Citizenship Studies is dedicated to this subject and gives an excellent overview of the variety of contexts in which citizenship revocation can arise.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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