A South Asian woman holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony in Indianapolis.
A South Asian woman holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony in Indianapolis. Michael Conroy/AP

Pushing citizenship is less fraught, politically speaking. Plus, it makes great economic sense.

In 2016, over 970,000 people applied for U.S. citizenship—the highest point point in two decades. That was 24 percent higher than 2015, and 9.2 percent more than 2012, when the last presidential election was held.

Partly, that surge was a result of heightened anxieties over the Trump administration’s immigration agenda. But it is also evidence for a very different force: a push for citizenship by city and local governments, especially those so-called heartland states.

That’s according to a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), which examines the impact of the Cities for Citizenship initiative. Since the start of 2016, the number of cities that have opted into this national effort to raise naturalization rates has doubled, to 38. And 7 of the 18 new members have been from states like Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, and Wisconsin, which helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

Contrary to their image, some of these mid-sized and small cities between the coasts are home to a growing population of immigrants and refugees. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, contains the second-largest population of Cuban immigrants outside of Florida (after Las Vegas). “We're very welcoming to folks from all over the world, whether they're refugees or Ph.D’s,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer tells CityLab.

His city’s foreign-born population makes 6.7 percent of the total; many work in the construction, manufacturing, technology, and tourism and hospitality trades. Together, immigrants in the Louisville metro area contribute almost $500 million in taxes. That bottom-line boost is one reason why the city joined Cities for Citizenship in 2017. “The program helps everyone realize the strength of being a diverse, pluralistic economy,” Fischer says. “Everybody can win—it's not just immigrants and refugees. This is about making the pie bigger for everybody.”

That claim is backed up by research. According to a 2015 Urban Institute report, naturalization can help the average immigrant improve earnings by $3,200 a year, and also improve homeownership and employment rates. If every city resident eligible for citizenship actually got it, their cities would gain millions in tax revenue, depending on size and demographics.

Still, many legal permanent residents who are eligible to apply don’t. The reason? Prohibitive application fees and language barriers. That’s where local governments can help. Among other things, they can promote English language programs, citizenship classes, and mitigate some of the rising costs.

Not every city has the resources to do all of the above. Knoxville, Tennessee, which joined the Cities for Citizenship initiative in the fall of 2016, has started taking baby steps. It’s creating a network of local organizations that provide citizenship services, to start. In the coming months, the mayor’s office is also launching efforts to raise awareness about the benefits of citizenship and the application process—including knowledge about fee waivers.

Joining this initiative also has a symbolic value: In the aftermath of an election consumed with anti-immigration rhetoric, cities like Knoxville are trying to send their foreign-born residents a message. “Citizenship is like a mom-and-apple-pie thing … it’s widely embraced across the political spectrum,”says Indya Kincannon, special program manager for the City of Knoxville. “Given some of the rhetoric, some people might conclude that America does not want them. That’s not true—that’s not true in Knoxville.”

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