Making Sense of Naturalization: What Citizenship Means to Naturalizing Immigrants in Canada and the USA

Abstract

Immigrant naturalization is both a barometer of inclusiveness and immigrant incorporation and a mechanism of social reproduction of the nation. This article reports on an interview-based study in suburban Toronto and New Jersey that investigated how immigrants explain their decisions to acquire citizenship. It analyzes respondents’ understandings of naturalization in light of different theories of citizenship and different dimensions of the concept. The study contributes to the literature by showing how many American immigrants interviewed while going through the naturalization process resisted framing naturalization as identity-changing, situating it instead as a common-sense move following permanent settlement and belonging. In contrast, Canadian respondents were more likely to characterize naturalization as an active process that tied them to a positively valued nation. While immigrant respondents in both countries were interested in voting and travel benefits of citizenship, only American respondents sought the protection that citizenship would afford in an anti-immigrant policy climate. I discuss how naturalization as a tool of civic integration and political empowerment resonates with immigrants’ own understandings of the process and consider the role played by the institutional contexts around naturalization and immigration more generally.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    More important than official dual citizenship policies of receiving countries are the policies of sending countries, which may make it impossible to give up citizenship or rescind citizenship upon naturalization elsewhere (Bloemraad 2004).

  2. 2.

    Despite assurances that talking to me and the research assistant had nothing to do with their citizenship application, I cannot rule out that some informants may have felt pressured to participate or were influenced by the setting, which can feel threatening, particularly in the USA. At the same time, responses presented below indicate that many of immigrants interviewed were not intimidated, and minimized the significance of naturalization.

  3. 3.

    The presidential election was particularly salient in the minds of American respondents, given the much publicized 2008 primaries and the presence of a television tuned to CNN in the waiting room where interviews were conducted in 2007 and 2008. These factors may have had a priming effect, resulting in a higher proportion of American respondents than Canadian respondents who said they wanted to vote when asked how they decided to naturalize.

  4. 4.

    I am drawing a distinction between naturalization in order to become American or Canadian and naturalization making the respondent feel American or Canadian.

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Correspondence to Sofya Aptekar.

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Aptekar, S. Making Sense of Naturalization: What Citizenship Means to Naturalizing Immigrants in Canada and the USA. Int. Migration & Integration 17, 1143–1161 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12134-015-0458-5

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Keywords

  • Naturalization
  • Citizenship
  • Immigration
  • Identity
  • Canada
  • USA