New York City, United States

Cities for Citizenship

Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, City of New York

June 7, 2016

Citizenship is a powerful tool that can lift families out of poverty, and is also an untapped revenue tool for municipalities.

citiesforcitizenshipImmigration is national, but settlement and inclusion are local. But, what does inclusion look like? Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner at New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs recently asked: How do you take action to make an increasingly diverse immigrant population feel welcome, included and that their presence is valued?

For the Cities for Citizenship campaign, the answer is to encourage higher rates of naturalization.

Citizenship matters

Recognizing that citizenship is an increasingly a powerful path to social and economic inclusion, Cities for Citizenship was launched in September 2014  by the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  The multi-city  network of city mayors is a major initiative aimed at increasing citizenship among eligible U.S. permanent residents and encouraging cities across the country to invest in citizenship programs amid growing realization that increased naturalization benefits immigrants and cities alike. Cities for Citizenship is working to ensure that municipal government leaders take practical steps to bring these benefits to their cities.


A natural win-win for cities and immigrants

Newcomers tend to become citizens for non-economic benefits, such as a sense of permanency, the right to vote or run for office, a passport that asserts legitimacy, a welcome identity or greater sense of belonging.  Agarwal, along with Global Director, Citi Community Development and Inclusive Finance, Bob Annibale, recently wrote: “It is widely recognized that gaining citizenship is a transformative social experience for immigrants and our nation…. Less widely appreciated is the fact that citizenship is a powerful source of economic empowerment and strength both for the individuals who gain citizenship, as well as the cities in which they live.”

That economic enrichment was recently quantified in the study The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities (PDF). Researchers studied 21 American cities, discovering that naturalization brings significant economic benefits, both to those who naturalize, and the economy. For immigrants, Citizenship leads to better paying jobs, higher employment rates, and home ownership. If everyone eligible in the 21 cities studied became Citizens, their earnings would increase by $5.7 billion. There would be 45,000 new homeowners.

This increased financial inclusion is crucial for the successful settlement of newcomers. It also results in long-term economic benefits for cities. The report found that naturalization would increase tax revenues by $2.03 billion in the 21 cities combined. It also found a decreased reliance on public benefits.

It’s the ultimate win-win for new Americans and their communities.

Citizenship is closer than many think

Designing effective outreach programs requires a deep knowledge of local communities. New York City estimates that “700,000 immigrant New Yorkers are one step away from citizenship.” Agarwal says that New York has learned that “if you want to create services for immigrant families, put them in the communities where they live.” Doing that ensured the success of New York City’s inaugural Citizenship Week of Action in late 2015.

NYCitizenship provides free help with citizenship applications at public library branches. What better community resource than the library system? More than half of those eligible for naturalization in the U.S. are low-income. Meeting their needs, and help them navigate the complex maze of applying for Citizenship means providing them with an appropriate intervention. NYCitizenship Services include “appointments with a trusted attorney for help with citizenship applications, information sessions about the citizenship process and its benefits, and free and confidential financial counseling.”

Nisha Agarwal, COM2016Recognizing that local community engagement is essential has transformed that way New York City agencies reach out to local communities. According to Agarwal, “If we want to reach the 50% of New Yorkers who speak a language other than English at home, reaching them in their language is essential. It matters to have people on the ground, in the neighbourhoods, building relationships with community organizations, faith leaders. These are people who speak the language of the neighbourhood. Many come from those neighbourhoods. That’s been helpful to build a bridge between City Hall and immigrant communities.”

The message to immigrant communities is clear: city government wants to serve all residents, and will speak their language. It’s also an important lesson for other cities that want to reach all communities.

Collaborating for Citizenship

In New York City, immigrant initiatives come directly from the Mayor’s Office. However, Agarwal points out that the Mayor’s office shouldn’t be the only, or even the main place where city government is thinking about immigrant families. One of her office’s key roles is to help city agencies better serve newcomers and build innovative programs to reach them. The City has expanded its outreach teams in other City agencies and targets communities through multilingual marketing.

On the national stage, collaboration is equally important. Cities compete for talent, investment and profile. But, on immigration and inclusion, city leaders are making their voices heard, together. There are many initiatives in the United States aimed at creating welcoming and inclusive cities for. Connecting, talking, building relationships and sharing best practices means individual cities can have a bigger impact when they work collectively.

Cities for Citizenship is the focal point on Citizenship for these connections. The campaign provides a road-map for what a city can do to build awareness and encourage naturalization. The range of possibilities might seem daunting for a smaller municipal government. Agarwal suggests that all cities have assets and relationships in the community. Cities can start small, perhaps host a Citizenship ceremony at City Hall. Even a small effort will show immigrant communities they are valued and welcome; that local leaders want them to see their place in the city.

Ultimately, naturalization represents an opportunity. The potential return on investment is great, for both new Americans and city governments.

Making it Work for You:

  • Know what assets are in your community. Figure out your community partners who care about naturalization. Bring them together.
  • If you want to create services for immigrant families, put them in places where they live.
  • Multilingual marketing is important, given demographics. Expand outreach team and expand extent they're doing multilingual marketing.
  • Figure out what you can do – workshops, information, hosting ceremony – many steps don't require huge founding or effort/apparatus. Just start to get the drumbeat going.
  • For cities just getting started, just do something, get the ball rolling.