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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Professor Ming Hsu Chen Presents on Immigration in the Enforcement Era

Professor of Law Ming Hsu Chen discussed her new book Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era as part of a lecture series on immigration issues hosted by the Center for Human Rights and International Justice on Monday, Sept. 14,  at Boston College.

Chen is a professor of law at the University of Colorado and is especially interested in differentiating formal citizenship from substantive citizenship, including elements such as social and economic parity. Her book looks at the increasing reasons for immigrants of all statuses to pursue citizenship in an era of increased policing and deportations.

The book is divided into three sections. The first outlines what divides immigrants from the rest of the population before and after immigrants are naturalized. The second contains interviews with hundreds of immigrants of various degrees of sponsorship and legal status. The final section focuses on policy suggestions.

“The question that is not on the form is why do you want to be a citizen?” Chen began, “As we saw more and more people become interested as we moved closer to the 2016 election, we wondered not only why, but why they had come out now.”

Many of the people at the citizenship workshops Chen frequented were Latinos who had been eligible for citizenship for upwards of 15 years. The closer the 2016 election loomed, the more people declared their intent to naturalize, even though they would be unable to vote in the election.

“For many years, they were fine being a green card holder, that they were de facto citizens. But they had reached a period of time where anti-immigrant rhetoric was rising,” Chen explained.

As President Trump increased the anti-immigration rhetoric, many immigrants felt like their green card was not enough protection and began to pursue naturalization.

“We think about citizenship in a binary. We think about people being inside the country or outside the country. We think of them being citizens or immigrants. We think of them being legal or illegal,” Chen explained.

Chen instead wants to create a citizenship spectrum that transforms the binary into something more granular. It examines formal citizenship or one’s legal status and then substantive citizenship such as one’s opportunities and inclusion in the larger American culture.

As the 2016 election passed and especially after the 2017 travel ban, immigrants increasingly felt the need to declare their intent to naturalize. A green card was no longer enough to protect them, while citizenship would provide them with insurance.

“The irony being that all the people at these workshops had already cleared an initial screen showing that they were eligible for citizenship,” Chen explained.

Naturalization rates in the United States hover around 50% for immigrants classified as other than refugees. This includes student work visas, work visas, and green card holders. For refugees, the naturalization rate is between 80-90%. In the last 3-4 years, interest in citizenship has increased by 10%.

“Some of the motivations for seeking citizenship have darkened. I heard more and more about the negative side of the positive benefits of naturalizing,” Chen summarized.

“They might have wanted to retain public benefits. I interviewed people too early but today I’m sure that people would be talking about the public charge rule,” she elaborated.  

The second half of Chen’s discussion focused on the enforcement era and the policies she proposed to help streamline the citizenship process.

“To be clear, I would think of the enforcement era as being much longer than the Trump Administration. It certainly includes that period of time, but it goes back at least 30 or 40 years,” Chen explained. Rewriting the United States immigration laws every ten years adds a new layer of enforcement to each new iteration of the laws. This enforcement only increased after 9/11.

Chen’s solutions to the immigration crisis and naturalization backlog focused on clearing administration burdens: lowering naturalization fees; creating a standard, simplified N400 document; and removing other barriers to achieving citizenship.

“In a broad stroke the idea is to have the north star of immigration being integration,” Chen concluded. “They ought to be considered citizens in waiting.”

With the conclusion of Chen’s presentation, the audience was invited to ask questions.

One law student asked, “What about the potentially coercive aspect of integration? In Sweden, they have programs for refugees that are pushing a certain type of cultural uniformity.”

“I do recognize there are places where the effort to integrate can move into an assimilation that can be really problematic. There are examples of this in Sweden and China,” Chen acknowledged.

“Minimally, what I’m calling for is offering access, offering opportunities to fit into the United States and to gain these critical thresholds, including formal legal status,” Chen defended.  

One of the tough questions is whether immigrants who hold a green card but do not elect to be naturalized should qualify for public benefits. Around 50% of all green card holders in the United States elect not to become citizens.

“If formal citizenship is necessary but not sufficient there might be other avenues for making life comfortable for those who don’t have the full, formal legal status that I’ve spoken of,” Chen finished.

Another student asked, “How do you explain the phenomenon of military naturalizations happening at a slower and backlogged rate supposing that the military is to be respected?”

“The process of becoming a citizen through the military at some points was set up so if we were at a period of hostility, one could become a citizen in one step as opposed to two different steps, and that one step could be achieved at the completion of basic training,” Chen explained.

“Instead, there have been changes in the way the Department of Defense security clearances happen. So that immigrants who are serving in the military have a very difficult time getting the certification they need,” she added.

Things like having a foreign nexus have become a red flag. This foreign nexus includes having family members or a bank account in a different place. All immigrants have a foreign nexus and this can delay or ultimately stop the security certification from happening.