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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

What Does Citizenship Mean in America?

Robin Harper, Associate Professor of Political Science, York College
New York, NY
May 26, 2016

Date: 05/26/2016 Location: New York, NY Description: Dr. Harper discusses how people think about citizenship and how those understandings influence civic engagement with journalists at the New York Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image
11:00 A.M. EST


MODERATOR: Okay. So let’s get started. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. My name is Monica Shie. Today we have Robin Harper, who’s an associate professor of political science at York College. And she’ll talk to you about her research on what citizenship means in America, both for those who seek it and those who don’t. All right? Thank you.

MS HARPER: I’m really happy to be with you today. What I’m planning to talk about is about citizenship and about naturalization, about some of the – about the major requirements in order to be eligible for citizenship, what those requirements really mean, a little about a naturalization ceremony – I understand that you’ll be attending a naturalization ceremony tomorrow. And so I’ll be able to juxtapose what you’ll be seeing also with what happens in a court, which is a little bit different. And talk about then why people seek citizenship and what they – why the government thinks they seek citizenship, and some challenges to those ideas from my own research. I hope that we’ll get to everything. I’ll try to hit the highlights, though, at least, and then come back during the question and answer. So here we go.

Good morning. So citizenship in the United States is based really on two essential elements – either being born on U.S. soil, or being naturalized. And this is embedded in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which is essentially designed to make sure that former slaves were considered citizens and that this didn’t come into question. This then became applied to naturalized citizens, even those whose parents or families are not naturalize-able. So merely the – so this is both for people who were born in the United – on U.S. territory, that they would be citizens, and then those naturalized. Okay.

And if you look at the number of people who have been naturalized over time, you can see that we are right now not at an historic high – it’s about 13 percent of the foreign-born population is naturalized and it’s about 40 million people who are foreign-born in the United States. And this accounts to right now about 44 percent. It’s actually a little bit higher right now, but 44 percent of those who are foreign-born have naturalized as U.S. citizens.

So how do you get to be a citizen? And it’s kind of funny in the beginning, because the first thing that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says to you is you need to determine if you’re already a citizen, which should be really very obvious that you know that you are or you’re not. And yet for a lot of people, it isn’t. We have no national registry; we have no national card. And there’s really – you may not know whether you were – where you were born, or you may not know what your parents’ status is either. And I have to say that I hear this kind of issue very frequently, even from my own students, where they are trying to figure out what their own status is. And you need to be a permanent resident in the United States for five years, or if you’re married to a U.S. citizen, for three years. There are exceptions for the military. It can be as short, depending on the law that’s in place in that time, for the military, being one day in the military and then being able to naturalize. You need to be present in the United States for 50 percent of that time – so two and a half years, or one and a half years if you’re married to a U.S. citizen. And that is then not considered for the members of the military.

You need to be a person of good moral character. And I’m going to talk about that a little bit, because it’s an interesting concept and really expresses a lot about the nature of being American and what it is to be – what we expect from people who are citizens. You need to be able to speak and read and write English. I can tell you from my husband’s own naturalization experience, the sentence that he was asked to write down is: “The President lives in Washington, D.C.” Oh, no, that’s wrong – “The President lives in the White House,” which is a second-grade reading level. So the bar is not particularly high.

QUESTION: He was just told, “Write this down?” They say the sentence?

MS HARPER: Yes. And then he has to prove that he can write that sentence. So it was really “The President lives in the White House.” The bar is not high. (Laughter.) The bar – I’d like to say as a professor that the bar for the U.S. history and government test is also not very high, but my students laugh when I give them this test, and they say, “Impossible.” It includes questions like “Who is the President?” and what – to describe the flag, so some very simple kinds of things. And then some ridiculous kinds of things, like “What form is used to apply for a naturalization?” And then some really quite – some more intriguing questions about the nature of rights and where those rights are embedded in the Constitution, and things like that. And those could raise some very interesting questions, although they don’t. You give the simple answer and they move on. There isn’t a dialogue to engage.

So – and the questions and the answers are provided by the government for free, and the government spent over the last three years $19 million to provide money for free citizenship classes in the community. So there are really a host of opportunities to learn about these things. And yet the bar – this is something – this test is something people really worry about and people do fail.

And you’re required to take an oath of loyalty to the United States, which I’ll talk about, which really embodies a lot of the ideas of what we expect from new citizens. And we’ll take a look at the oath.

So what exactly is good moral character? So you have to swear that you haven’t practiced polygamy, you’re not a gambler, you’re not a prostitute or procuring people for prostitution, that you’re not a habitual drunkard, that you’ve never voted or registered to vote in the United States. And that seems kind of silly except that, first of all, in some districts it’s legal to vote in the United States in local elections even if you’re not a citizen. We’ll put that aside; so that raises some questions. And if you didn’t know that you weren’t a citizen, you might have registered, thinking that this was a good way to participate in your community. So this could raise some issues.

You have to talk about your political activities, that you are not and never have been a member of the Communist Party, involved with Nazi atrocities, totalitarian regimes, or terrorist activities. And this list has grown over time.

QUESTION: Sorry. And why do you think it is? Or why they have this rule to do it?

MS HARPER: I think that these rules were introduced at times where there were political fears of various kinds, and they stuck. And I think that they agglomerate over time as opposed to saying, “Well, it’s highly unlikely at this point in time that anyone who has participated in Nazi atrocities is applying for naturalization.” It’s not impossible, but that would be a mechanism to use for denaturalization. If you lie on the application, you may be stripped of your citizenship.

QUESTION: It feels that some of these rules are contradictory with U.S. law, right? Being a member of the Communist Party – isn’t that part of, like, free speech and free affiliation and so on, which is a right in the Constitution? Or like use or sold weapons, which is also in the Constitution.

MS HARPER: Yeah. But there’s a parallel set of rights for citizens and noncitizens. And again, it’s as I said at the beginning of this, there are – people who hold, for instance, Green Cards, can buy weapons. People who are noncitizens cannot. So there’s a – there are things that may be available to all, and then there are things that are available to some.

QUESTION: But being politically active is not available to noncitizens?

MS HARPER: So being politically active is available to noncitizens. You need to report that you’ve done these things.

QUESTION: But if I was a member of the Communist Party in France, I couldn’t be a naturalized citizen?

MS HARPER: So you must report that you have been a member of the Communist Party. So – and if you have been, I mean, the – it’s both the lying and the fact. And --

QUESTION: But there are waivers, right?



MS HARPER: Yes. Absolutely. So --

QUESTION: Just before we move, since we are still at the point --


QUESTION: -- “advocated the overthrow of any government.” What about the Iraqis or the Libyans who were advocating the overthrow of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, who were not really angel or democratic? What’s these people’s situation?

MS HARPER: It comes back to the same thing that you need to say what you did and that becomes part of the record. If you participated in the activity and don’t say what you did, that can be used as a rationale for denaturalization later. It’s a question of truth-telling that you should --

QUESTION: So you must swear that you have not been – that’s not exact – you don’t have to swear that – you just have to say that you haven’t?

MS HARPER: You cannot be a member of the Communist Party when you naturalize into the United – as a U.S. citizen.


MS HARPER: After, you can do whatever you want.

QUESTION: But before, no?

QUESTION: And during, no?

MS HARPER: (Laughter.) So the difference – there’s a Rubicon. Once you become a citizen, you join the class of citizens and then you – for instance, you can be deported for certain offenses before you become a citizen. But once you’re a citizen, they can’t deport you, for instance, for murder. That’s --

QUESTION: I wonder about this – I’ve never heard this “advocate the overthrow of any government” or whatever. What if you’re being an activist in a foreign country that’s tried to overthrow a dictatorship?

MS HARPER: See, it comes back to --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MS HARPER: It’s the same thing.


MS HARPER: It’s bringing forward the information. I participated in this activity.

QUESTION: All right.

MS HARPER: And that’s the – it’s being truthful. And I think that that truth element is an important part of American culture. You are coming in saying, “This is who I am.”

QUESTION: All right.

MS HARPER: “And I have met your requirements and you will accept me into the fold or not.”


MODERATOR: There are similar rules for immigrant visas. And if, in your example, or maybe if you’re a member of the French Communist Party, you can apply for a waiver. So there’s a whole system of waivers. That’s how that would happen.

MS HARPER: Yeah. And the waiver thing also will come up later about things that are absolutely required but are not absolutely required, because there are ways to waiver them out, which we’ll look at in just a second.

So one of the things that could make it difficult to become a citizen is if you need to say that you have been in a mental institution, that you’ve owed taxes, that you haven’t filed your taxes. Again, in the United States there’s no crime in being too poor to pay your taxes, but it is a crime to not file your taxes. And you need to report what groups you have been a member of, and there are groups that are groups that we want people to participate in, like the PTA or other kinds of activities – I’m not advocating PTA, I’m just mentioning it, it doesn’t frighten anybody. But you make a list; that’s on the application.

You have to say whether you’ve had an unfavorable experience – I’ll call it that – that you’ve been separated from the U.S. military, either that you have abandoned the military or that you were dishonorably discharged or something like that, that you haven’t – if you haven’t paid your child support or alimony, whether you’ve lied to the government, or if you’ve been illegally present at any time, have been deported or removed. And all of these kinds of things need to be reported. There are some times where they are an absolute impediment and some times where they are a soft impediment, and that’s dependent on the law, obviously.

On with moral character. And still it’s not so simple. The bar seems to be like relatively low. You have to be here a certain amount of time, you have to speak a very basic kind of level of English, you have pretty much have stayed out of trouble most of your life. And yet, it gets a little bit more complicated. And really being – becoming an American citizen is very much about choice. It’s about voice. It’s about an economic situation. It’s having this right background, passing the tests, time going by in a host of different ways, and being able to maneuver the bureaucracy. And I have a long list of stuff, but I’m going to highlight just a few of them.

The first one is that you really have to make a demand that you want to be a citizen. And this seems pretty obvious, except nobody in the government is going to come and look for you. You can stay here your entire life as a permanent resident and no one will make a demand on you. You have to make that choice. You have to apply. And this is really a very important thing in joining the community of citizens, is really saying “I want to be one of you; I want to leave behind what I’ve done before and I want to support the Constitution.”

You have to pay the fee. The fee is expensive. It’s about $680 per person, plus you have the photos and the stamps and everything else that go along with that. And if you were in a family of five, you can imagine that’s a really nice amount of money. Again, here you have the waiver issue. You can apply for a fee waiver if you don’t have the money and it’s reviewed and – or states and localities are also very willing to pay these fees for immigrants in certain cases.

QUESTION: Not in New York City. (Laughter.)

MS HARPER: Well, they have a program. They don’t – it’s not for everybody, but they do have a program, where they pay for it. And New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, a host of other places set up these programs and funds in order to pay the fees in large part so that people are able to continue to receive a stream of federal benefits and that they don’t then become dependent on the state and local government in the process. So there’s a policy there.

You have to have the socially acceptable history, which part of the issue – you need to be willing to disclose your private history. And this is, to me, kind of interesting. Over time, you’ve seen this web grow of saying what your own citizenship is, what your spouse’s citizenship is and your spouse’s background, affiliation, your children, your ex-spouses, and now your spouse’s previous spouses. And as modern life becomes more and more complicated, you can see that this – the web gets wider and wider.

And I think what’s also really interesting is you have to be able to navigate the bureaucracy. And this comes back to this idea of choice and voice, of really thinking that you really want to be here. It’s a process and it takes time, and it’s a thick application with a lot of papers and a lot of being on time and doing things according to the way that the bureaucracy wants you to do that. And just surviving that process is a sign that you are ready to interact on a regular basis with your new government and that you’ve learned how to manipulate things – and I mean that in a positive way – that you’ve learned how to make the system work to get the things that you want. And you are able to be a ruler because you’re able to make demands and have them resolved.

And you need to be patient, which really is waiting. The current process right now, it takes – it’s about – there’s about a nine, ten-month delay in naturalization and – from the time you submit your application until you’re sworn in. Some people can be sworn in on the same day, but they’re working on applications now from about 10 months ago. At one point, it was five, six years. So they’ve really sped up the process tremendously, but it does take time.

Okay. So what happens at the ceremony itself? The ceremony is really nice, I think, and it’s very much a classic rite of passage, where you have a situation of separation, of transition, and incorporation. And what I mean by that is first people come in and they are separated, normally, from their guests, their friends, whoever it is that came with them. And during this time they sit then normally – not always – but with other potential citizens, essentially really marking that they are joining a new group. They are called up one by one and they’re asked to give in their former immigration documents and to essentially say, “I have given up my immigration status.” And again, I think at this point, they’re really quite vulnerable. They have no immigration status and they’re wondering what will become of me in the next few minutes. The expectation is they will get citizenship, but that’s – there is this moment. They are told that – they’re asked if anything has changed since their last naturalization interview, and this essentially – at this moment, if anything has changed they have to say that or else they lose their – that’s also a reason for being denaturalized later. They’re given a little gift packet. I was just at a naturalization a couple weeks ago and there were people who were complaining because they didn’t get the flag, but normally there’s a flag and there’s a book of – there’s a Constitution, there’s a Declaration of Independence, there’s a letter of congratulations from the President. I’m sure you’ll be able to show them maybe one of these packets.

At that point, they’re in this really very in-between stage where they’re ready to take the oath. They’re asked to stand and they take the oath and they are then given a speech about the future, which normally is something that talks about really how they will live as citizens and being part of the community, what their rights are, what their obligations are. Not infrequently, it’s more obligations than rights, and I think that’s also interesting. And then, if this is run by the courts, the judge essentially stops participating in the proceedings and it’s taken back over by the bureaucracy, and they are welcomed as citizens and asked to recite our Pledge of Allegiance – the wording is important – and they stand up together and they’re conferred. Then one by one, their naturalization ceremonies. In this initial bureaucratic separation stage, they may also be asked if they want to change their name. You have the right to change your name and to be really reborn in America. And sometimes you see people – you say, “No way, you picked that name?” Like, it’s quite interesting to see the choices that come up.

So – so what’s in the oath? The oath uses words that I would suggest are words that I’ve never used in normal discourse. I have never said “potentate” ever, and “heretofore” is just – they – the words are strange. The constructions are strange. And it includes – I’ll give you kind of a quick translation on the next slide, if that’s okay. Yeah – which says that essentially that you’re publicly declaring that you have renounced your ties to whatever state you came from – that’s important – not people, culture, language; it’s the state that you used to belong to and the rulers of that state – and that you are freely attaching yourself to the United States Constitution and its laws, that you’re willing to risk your life to defend the Constitution and defend the United States, that you’re willing to follow the government’s direction as a legitimate power, and the government’s direction is part of the democratic decisions of the people, and that you’re willing to do work for the community.

That’s essentially – and then there’s a religious incantation at the very end. And --

QUESTION: There’s a religious?

MS HARPER: There’s a religious phrase. It says, “So help me God” at the very end, which was added much later. The bulk of the oath was written in 1906. There have been some variations that have come in over time – in the 1940s, 1950s – and this is where we are right now.

The real irony which I think you’ll see is that everything that’s done as part of this, you’re told by the USCIS that the most important part of the naturalization process is the recitation of the oath, okay, and yet, it’s done in a group; nobody checks if you say it; nobody knows if you know what you’re saying. And it’s – and this is also, I think, part of this idea that’s fundamentally American: We are trusting you. You have joined freely this community and you are taking this obligation onto yourself. And that, I think, is really quite beautiful, and it can be an extremely emotional event. It can be not an emotional event, but you see really the range of emotions in the room. But it’s very much something you do publicly that is not verified.

So this idea of this Constitution and joining the Constitution is really fundamentally American. Philip Gleason, the political sociologist, tells us that it means that the American nationality is open to anyone who wants to be American. You can choose it. You’re not born into being American; you can elect to be part of it. And this has really been a fundamental part of who we are. In fact, in our Declaration of Independence one of the complaints against the king was that he refused to allow us to naturalize people. And so this has really been – it’s who we are from the very beginning.

People by norm naturalize in this country. The longer you’re here, the more likely it is that you will become a U.S. citizen. If you entered before 1980, only 26 percent of the people are not citizens. If you entered by 1989, between 1980 and 1989, 55 percent. And if you entered this – from 1990 to 2000, 87 percent. So you can really see that it drops quite precipitously – the longer you’re here, the more likely it is that you will become a citizen.

And we can see that naturalization rates range all over the place, and there are reasons why there’s such a huge disparity. It’s about 770-odd thousand people a year right now who become citizens each year, and the – and the reality is the United States always presents itself as a nation of immigrants. But what it is very much is a nation of naturalized citizens and their descendants. And I say that because up until a few years ago, the United States naturalized more people as U.S. citizens than all – as – well, as citizens than all other countries in the world combined.

QUESTION: Sorry, when was this?

MR HARPER: The United States naturalized per year – per year – more people as citizens than all other countries in the world combined. That’s changed now. You’ve seen --

QUESTION: It has changed?


QUESTION: When did it change? I mean, where is the – when you say “past” --

MR HARPER: Past – between the past five to 10 years or so.

QUESTION: And when did it change?

MR HARPER: You see large changes in Europe that – because laws have changed to make it more possible for people to become citizens in Germany, in Spain, in a host of other places that you see really there is a change.

QUESTION: You know who is the top country now?

MR HARPER: The United States.



QUESTION: Germany is contending on this. (Laughter.)

MR HARPER: We’ll see. (Laughter.) We’ll see how that lasts. So who naturalizes by region of birth – as you can see, about 35 percent are from North America. That includes Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; 35 percent from Asia; 10 percent from Europe; 10 from – 9 percent from Africa; and 10 percent from South America. Very few from Australia, New Zealand, Pacific, et cetera.

QUESTION: Where’s the Middle East?

MR HARPER: It’s folded into – depending on where you are – in Africa or in Asia. And I’m – okay, we’ll leave that.

So where do they live, the naturalized citizens? They live in the states that have the most immigrants, as we would expect them to, and about 75 percent of the naturalized citizens live in 10 states, and that’s especially important, as you’ll note, because of the upcoming election. If you add up the electoral college votes from those states, it’s about 250 votes, which is – and it takes 270 to win. So these immigrants could have a real impact on the election. Some of them are in swing states, some not – New York, well, we’ll see what happens this time around. Anyway, so that’s something to think about.

Where do they come from? They essentially match the countries where immigrants come from. Traditionally some of these countries have had very low rates of naturalization, but now you see there is an increasing trend. One of the reasons why even though Mexican naturalization is very low, the reality is that it’s at the top because there are so many more Mexican immigrants than any other group. If I’m not mistaken, at this point 29 percent of all foreign born are from Mexico. And the next largest group is from China, which I believe is at 7 percent. So it’s a big difference.

This also raises who could potentially become a citizen, and this brings us into the legal permanent resident green card holders. There are about 13 million of them, 9 million of them who are eligible to naturalize, meaning that they’ve met the time threshold – we don’t know about anything else but the time – and another 4.5 million who are not eligible to naturalize because they haven’t met the initial time threshold. And they also live in these same states. So again, they have the propensity to – the lawful permanent resident map of where they live and the naturalized citizen map are really quite similar. They have the propensity, really, to change elections.

Okay, so I can – well, I’ll talk about this. So why do people naturalize? We can see this – the expectations that we see in both government rhetoric and policy is both positive behavior and what I’m going to call marginally positive and negative behavior. So the positive behavior is essentially that people naturalize because they love the country and they feel they’ve been here and they want to be a part of the country. The more negative aspect – this expectations of benefits – includes things the government advertises: You get benefits if you naturalize. And so it includes some of these nice things that are there: permanent – that you can – not legal permanent residency, but you can stay here forever. Nobody can tell you to leave, you can come and go as you please, you can run for office, you can vote, you can bring other family members here – there are all different kinds of things that you can do, and this is the government’s list of all the good things that come. And then there’s the more negative aspect of believing that people naturalize because they want to game the system, they want to get benefits or something like that. So both of these kinds of aspects of positive and negative are there.

And so on the developmental side, I believe that there is a model that we have that people over time achieve certain markers and grow into America, and that the expectation is that this process is unilinear, it only goes in one direction; it’s universal, it belongs to all people; and it’s progressive – it continues and it agglomerates over time – and that people become Americans at naturalization. That’s what we believe, that we have this kind of expected flow of what happens. You come, you get status, you interact, you really build a life here, you learn the advantages of being a member here, you lose interest in your home country, you develop feelings, et cetera, et cetera. You decide I’m going to naturalize, you apply for citizenship and take the oath, you naturalize, and then you are citizens like all others. So it’s very much this flow of activity. And as I said before, naturalization is the norm. The longer you’re here, it’s expected and you follow this policy where over time you really grow into America.

And there are a number of people – there are different ways to think about how citizenship then – how people think about citizenship who – there are people who want to naturalize and they can, there are people who want to naturalize and they can’t, and then there are people who are not interested. And we don’t think about very much the people who want to naturalize and can’t or who are not interested in naturalization at all.

So I have this series of frames that I think of people who are seeking benefits, people who are making claims, people who have this what I call incidental citizenship – it’s just easier to be a citizen than not because it’s the norm here – and then people who have this developmental feeling of growing into America. And again, it falls into these three groups: you want to naturalize and you can, you want to and you can’t, or you’re not interested. And this would then help to explain why people do or don’t naturalize. Maybe it’s not about the benefits that the government thinks that they’re going after.

In fact, when I look at benefit seeking, the people who think – who have this benefit-seeking approach, they do want stuff, but it’s not the stuff on the list. What was really interesting in my research was talking to people who said, “I want to become a citizen because I can get a better job, a better apartment, a better wife, a better sex partner, a better something by showing up with my citizenship as a thing.” And why wouldn’t these people naturalize? It’s because either they’re not eligible or because they can’t get that benefit, whatever it is. They were too old, too sick, too something that the benefit that they wanted just wouldn’t happen for them.

Then you see people who have this claims-making approach: “I worked in this country. I built this country. I deserve something.” And this is like this payment for services, that citizenship is the payment: “You will give me and my descendents for all time attachment to this country as a thank you.” And they don’t naturalize either because they’re not eligible or because they think of themselves as being from somewhere else, that they’re not making a claim here so they don’t need that outcome.

Those who have this incidental approach, they feel that they are – these are people who are involved in everything. They don’t need to be a citizen to join the PTA or do something in their community or raise money for organizations or anything else. They feel very much that being a citizen means that they don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy. They’re done with filing papers, standing in the wrong line at the airport, and all of those kinds of things. They just want to be finished, and they don’t naturalize either because they’re not eligible or because the cost of citizenship exceeds whatever benefits; it’s just easier to just stay a permanent resident than to pay the money or to fill out the papers or to expose themselves and talk about all their activities or anything else.

And then there are people who have this developmental approach, the one that I grew up on, believing that you come to this country and you become American by falling in love with the way of life. And they don’t naturalize because either they’re not eligible or there are various structural barriers: They don’t – they can’t even speak this very low level of English that’s expected, they can’t pass the test, they can’t fill in the papers, they can’t get out of work in order to go to the various meetings that they need to go to. They would lose whatever rights they have in their home country that are actually important, so we think about – they can’t go to the meetings because they’d lose their job is a very low-income level. At a very high-income level, if you were an attorney and you lost your right to practice in your home country because you were no longer a citizen in your home country, you wouldn’t naturalize here. So even if you love it, you can’t. So there are all kinds of issues there.

So we need to rethink about what naturalization is, how it works, and that it’s not the same thing as people being members – it’s a little bit deeper than that – and that if we want to use this as thinking about who’s one of us and who’s not, naturalization may not be the way that we can do that. There may be something more that we need to be thinking about. And further, I think states as a whole really need to think about people who are completely excluded who can’t naturalize at all. There are a lot of people who are here among us who we should be bringing into the fold and need to be much more energetic about thinking about doing that other than naturalization.

So there you go. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Questions?

QUESTION: I have one. What did you learn about xenophobia in your research?

MS HARPER: It’s present. In what way?

QUESTION: Well, being a nation of immigrants, and yet xenophobia seems to be running high, particularly in this year.

MS HARPER: It’s been a constant. Xenophobia, xenophilia, they’re flip sides. We love this idea of being a nation of immigrants, but it’s hard sometimes to deal with difference and change, and it brings new challenges to the society. And immigrants who come here sometimes are facing real community issues. Citizenship is practiced in a very local way. It’s not just what the government gives you; it’s very much in your community. And that doesn’t seem to be in any way a barrier to people deciding to naturalize. In fact, it is a way sometimes to encourage people to naturalize, that something happened and they said, “I am going to make a difference” and believe that they still can.

QUESTION: You mentioned a while ago that some noncitizens have already registered to vote in the states that does not require identification at voting. How kosher is this elections --

MS HARPER: Totally not. So I think the number is this big. I think it’s completely miniscule. But there are people who may not know that they’re not citizens when they register. And there are places – for instance, in New York City, there was a time – we now no longer have this, but we had school board elections that were open to all people who had children in the school system so long – yeah, so long as they had children in the school system. And it didn’t matter if they were a citizen, whether they were legally present, or if they were undocumented. You just needed to be part of the community in order to vote.

There are fewer and fewer of those kinds of instances around the country, but they do exist.

QUESTION: No, speaking about – I’m meaning particularly general elections and midterm elections, not the school board, not the PTA level. I’m speaking on a state and federal – city, state, and federal level.

MS HARPER: Well, the school board elections were city-run elections. They were run by New York City.

QUESTION: Okay. What about city council, state senate, this sort of elections.

MS HARPER: I don’t know the figures off the top of my head, but again, I think it’s really a very, very, very limited thing that happens if – on the form itself it asks you if you can – I’m just trying to think of what’s on the form right now. It asks you if you are eligible to vote when you register. I have to look at the forms again. But I don’t think – it’s not that I think that there’s some massive pool of people who are sneaking out to vote.

QUESTION: Last election – last presidential election cycle, there was a big story about an organization – I believe it was called ACORN, something like that, that they were registering people. They were doing voter registration drives and everything and – because that’s how you were getting paid from whichever program. So when you bring that, what is the guarantee, since they fill all the form for the people? Do you go to vulnerable people? They may not be able to speak English. They may not be able to understand exactly what’s the ramification and – or what they have to do is just put their signature and name on it and sign in good faith. But coming the elections, we just need to – I need to understand what is the safeguard that these people don’t vote since it turned out that presenting an identification at the polling station is something frowned upon in many states. What is the safe measurement?

MS HARPER: So this is a hot political debate on the – by and large, the Republicans say that there are people who should not be voting who are voting, and Democrats who say there are people who should be able to vote who are being denied the opportunity to vote. And I think the jury’s out at this point. I don’t think it’s a huge number. There isn’t a – we don’t have a registry. We have a registry of registered voters, but we don’t have a registry of citizens. There isn’t such a thing. It has been proposed and it’s been proposed many times, in fact, and it’s failed every time.

QUESTION: Is that something that’s – is it that common for – like, in the world, is it common to have a registry of citizens, or is it – like, how is it compared to --

MS HARPER: In many countries there’s a --

QUESTION: Social Security is a registry.

MS HARPER: No. Well, I can tell you on my Social Security card – and I’m old, so it says on it that this cannot be used for identification purposes. That no longer is on the card. At least it’s not on my children’s cards. And I think that’s – that’s interesting. The – is it normal? In some countries you have to register when you move someplace and deregister when you leave there. We don’t have any of that, so --

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about the refugees questions? There’s been – I mean, there was – I don’t know how – if the U.S. has actually accepted – there was – they were going to accept 10,000 more refugees from the Middle East. It’s a big topic in the election campaign. Is it – are there fewer – I mean, refugees who eventually become U.S. citizens, do they go into the naturalization numbers as well --


QUESTION: -- or are they separate? How big – can you say how many of the people are actually refugees?

MS HARPER: Every year there’s a number that’s set by Congress for how many refugees we’re going to take. And if I’m not mistaken, it’s somewhere around 10,000 every year.

QUESTION: So it’s 10,000 out of 770,000?

MS HARPER: No, no, that we take in as new immigrants.

QUESTION: Yeah, but they will become citizens.

MS HARPER: I don’t know what their percentage is. I can find that out and send that to you if you like.

MODERATOR: But I believe that is the difference between the large numbers of people coming into Europe, is that the ones who come to the United States are on that citizenship track, is that they do have – as long as they can prove all of the things they need to prove, can be naturalized --

QUESTION: Because they are picked from the refugee camps around the world, right?

MODERATOR: They are, yeah. They’re identified, sure.


QUESTION: Why – sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry, just that the family reunification rules – have they stayed the – what are – because in Europe there’s a big – at least in northern Europe, there’s now – because of the refugee crisis, there’s a lot of talk about making the family reunification rules stricter. Have – what are the situation here?

MS HARPER: So most people who come to the United States for permanent residency who come here with a green card come as part of family reunification, and there’s a series of preferences. It’s a total of about over a million people. I think it’s about 1.1 million people who come every year. And about – I think about 70-odd percent of them come for family reunification purposes. And then there’s another 20 percent or so which are part of the – who come on employer visas to be as natural – as green card holders, and then the refugees, and then the Diversity Visa Lottery, which is tiny, maybe 50,000 or so a year.

QUESTION: So how many were family reunification?

MS HARPER: I think it’s about – I think it’s about 700 – 700,000 or so who come every year, but that doesn’t mean that those are the ones who naturalize.

QUESTION: Right. Okay, yeah.


QUESTION: Most likely they will, I mean, if they --

MS HARPER: So there’s research that says that if you make it easier for children to become citizens, the parents have less – less desire to do it themselves. So you have people whose children are born here, and do they – and the question then becomes: Do they naturalize because their children have already secured – we don’t have a second-generation problem here. You --

QUESTION: What do you mean, a second-generation problem?

MS HARPER: If you’re born in the United States, you are American.

QUESTION: Sure, yeah.

MS HARPER: So we don’t continue that, “Oh, what will become of my children or grandchildren?” You’re in. And so then that raises the question: What happens to the parents over time? And so with many of them, they say, “Well, we’re here now.” It’s this incidental approach. “We’re here. We’ve been here. Our children are here. I might as well naturalize. And it wasn’t important to me when I first came, either because I was thinking of going back, or whatever the issue is, or I didn’t have any of these” – from the categories that I showed – “these feelings, but now it’s been so long it’s just easier.”

QUESTION: Is it also easier when your child is already like in – U.S.-born, so it makes it easier for you to get naturalized as a parent?

MS HARPER: It doesn’t – at least – I don’t – I’ve never heard anybody at the immigration office say that they look more favorably on it.


MS HARPER: It really – the criteria are really those things about being here long enough, taking the test, filling in the application --

QUESTION: Paying taxes.


QUESTION: Paying taxes.

MS HARPER: Paying taxes is key. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: So the rules of family reunification – they have (inaudible) or whatever.

MS HARPER: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Do you know them, the rules?

MS HARPER: There’s a whole – there’s a preference list.


MS HARPER: So there’s an unlimited category for people who are coming in who are the spouses of U.S. citizens, and then it goes into the preference list of the children, the parents, the brothers and sisters. But it kind of obscures a little bit more than it reveals, because just because you come in on one of these lists – on – under one of the preferences, then there’s a period of time to wait for your visa to come through. So it may be – and in some countries people wait because of the way that the visas are divided – they may be waiting 5, 10, 15 years for their number to come up even though they’ve met the preference already.

QUESTION: For the preference, do you have to, if I want to – if I’m American and I want to bring my husband from whatever country, do I have to earn a certain amount of money to do that? I mean, are these --

MS HARPER: So there’s a – there’s a requirement, an affidavit of support --


MS HARPER: -- that you can support that person at a certain level, but that person’s income would also be counted into the affidavit of support. So you can – the person can even count themselves --

QUESTION: Because they said the rules about that changing now in Europe. You have to earn more money to get your husband or your spouse over. You have to have lived there for longer. You have to wait three years to get your children in. I mean, they’re making it very, very hard at least (inaudible) know about, so I was just wondering the comparison to here --

MS HARPER: It’s – I mean, there were a lot – the bars were set much higher in the 1990s. It was suddenly like a sea change of thinking about what we were going to do. But since then, it’s remained relatively constant, and this has been some of the big discussion that came up in the immigration debates in the mid-2000s. And again, we’ll see what happens after the next election of should we change these kinds of rules, should we make it harder, should we make it easier for some people who’ve had a hard time and harder for people who’ve had an easy time.

We – in the ’90s, we introduced this Diversity Visa Lottery with the hope of bringing in people because of family reunification really crowding out and having really no way for people from other countries who wanted to come here to find a legal way in. So they developed this very small program, but it’s been really pretty successful. I think they get something like --

QUESTION: The lottery?

MS HARPER: -- yeah, like 9 million applications for like 50,000 slots.

QUESTION: Have you made any analysis about political affiliation of naturalized citizens?

MS HARPER: What do they do afterwards?


MS HARPER: Do they vote? Do they --


MS HARPER: I haven’t. That’s not my thing, but there’s – there’s some interesting data, and I’m smiling because I’m thinking of a piece that looks at the fact that a lot of naturalized citizens don’t vote. And you say to yourself, you went to all that effort --


MS HARPER: -- why don’t you vote? And they say, well, we don’t vote, so they become like us. And we don’t vote and they don’t vote.

QUESTION: Is there any fact about – saying like, for instance, like 80 percent of natural citizens who vote are Democrats or Republicans?

MS HARPER: I’m sure there is, and I would be happy to look that up for you, but I don’t know off the top of my head.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: There is a folder here, which – there was a briefing a couple of days ago. It just takes the Latino case --


QUESTION: -- but not – not across the board for all of the migrants. I think they still have an extra copy there.


QUESTION: And it’s also known how to think about the whole immigration system, when they’re going to vote. Are they in favor of getting more the stricter rules, or just make it easier? Because I would say if you come to all the process, you would like to keep it the same because you did all the work, or is there anything – did you do some research on that one?

MS HARPER: So that’s also – it’s not my field, but I mean, I’ve looked at the literature on this. And you see in certain elections it’s really interesting that people want to make it much stricter because they did all the work --


MS HARPER: -- and nobody should have an easy way in. And then a lot of people who are on the road to naturalizing, they might say, “Well, I’m in the process and so for everybody” – so before it happens, they’re very interested in openness, and then once they naturalize, they might change their view, or if they have other members of their family who are also in a similar situation. But again, that’s not – that’s – that’s not my --

QUESTION: Or your income grow and you become in a higher tax bracket, then your political affiliation might change.

MS HARPER: So that depends. It really depends on the group. It – you can see that there are certain groups that are – that regardless of their income status, vote – vote very liberally, and other groups who are at the lower-income levels who vote very conservatively, and a lot of angling from the parties to try to capture these unknown wildcard new voters. We have no idea of what they will be – what they think or how they will behave. And that’s always a fear of how much to bring them in. It’s very nice to talk the inclusiveness, but when you actually have to do it, it raises questions of new demands on a system with very limited resources.

And I was very excited at this naturalization I went to a couple weeks ago, where they were – community groups are allowed to give talks at the naturalization. And one thing that they’re also allowed to do is to distribute voter registration documents. And I’ve gone many times when almost nobody – they grab a thing and they say, “I’ll do it on – later after we have our dinner” or whatever and I don’t know if they send it or not. But this time there were people who were really scribbling in their name – they were not going to leave this building without registering to vote and they were on the floor and on the walls and on every flat surface. And I found it fascinating.

QUESTION: This was recently?

MS HARPER: This was two weeks ago.

QUESTION: This election cycle?

MS HARPER: Just two weeks ago at 500 Pearl Street. And so --

QUESTION: Hard to ignore this election --


MS HARPER: So it was --

QUESTION: Do you already see a shift in people – more people applying at the moment for naturalization because they’re afraid maybe if Trump --


QUESTION: -- will become the next president?

MS HARPER: So at – in presidential elections traditionally, there are increase of applications. The question is the timing of when they can be processed, and because of the registration rules in – which are determined at each state, it may not make a difference. You may not be able to vote even if you wanted to. We see at times where there is a – an anti – the xenophobia question you asked – when there’s a xenophobic feeling that more people do decide that they’re going to apply for naturalization.

QUESTION: When there’s a higher xenophobic – how do you measure that or how do you – just like --

MS HARPER: Public opinion polls.

QUESTION: Okay. So this year is high? It’s high? I mean, it is. (Laughter.) It’s not a question, but --

MS HARPER: There’s discussion. We’ll say that.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. But so – I’m sorry, you might have said this, but so the – so like, who they – who the people who naturalize are, and you said, like, they’re from Asia and North America, but who – are they all – like, how many of them do have family here or do have a connection or – I mean, almost everybody has come --

MS HARPER: Well, the – either they’re coming through family reunification or through business or through refugee or through diversity visa --

QUESTION: Yeah, but the large part. Like, the 750,000 is family reunification?

MS HARPER: So you come back to this --

QUESTION: Almost everybody?

MS HARPER: So most refugees --


MS HARPER: -- will naturalize. You would expect that.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, because few of them --

MS HARPER: Most diversity visa people will naturalize. Businesspeople are --

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. But it’s – so those are very few numbers, like 10,000 refugees, 50,000 diversity visas. Is that --



MS HARPER: So it gets – it – I guess even if a lot choose to, the number is so huge that it’s not necessarily reflecting --

QUESTION: A lot of it.

MS HARPER: Well, if there’s – there are so many people who are coming under family reunification that even if they are naturalizing in large numbers, it’s a reflection of the fact that there are so many people who are here coming under family reunification over a long period of time as opposed to that – that there’s a reason why they’re naturalizing. Do you see where I’m – the pool itself is so huge that the percentage will reflect that the pool is huge as opposed to that there is something about being a family reunification member that makes you seek out naturalization.

MODERATOR: Okay, there are no other questions. Thank you so much for coming.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS HARPER: Thank you very much.

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