Report reveals best (and worst) cities for becoming a U.S. citizen, and where the tech hubs stand

A naturalization ceremony in Ohio. The Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus regions are ranked among “the best cities to become a new American” in a new report from Seattle startup Boundless. (Stephen A. Wolfe Photo, via Flickr, Creative Commons).

U.S. immigration law, policy and practices are national, in theory, but where immigrants live can noticeably impact their efforts to become U.S. citizens.

That’s the underlying conclusion of a new report from Seattle-based startup Boundless Immigration, released Monday morning, which ranks major metro areas across the country by “relative ease of naturalization.” The report finds that “barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen have gotten worse over time, and are not evenly distributed across the country.”

How the ranking was created: The index, which Boundless derived from U.S. government data, ranks regions based on a weighted average of three measures: backlog completion rate for citizenship applications; median wait time; and distance to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service field office.

Best and worst: The study names the metro areas of Cleveland, Ohio; Riverside, Calif., and Louisville, Ken. the “best cities to become a new American.”

At the bottom of the list, Texas is home to the three cities where immigrants face the most difficult process of naturalization: Austin, Houston, and Dallas.

Boundless Chart. (See Full Report.)

National trends: The report calls out two data points indicating that the naturalization process is becoming more difficult across the country.

  • Under the Trump administration, the backlog completion rate for citizenship applications was 53 percent in 2017, down from 63 percent in 2016.
  • The median wait time for citizenship applications was 10 months as of 2018, compared with less than six months in 2016 and 2017.

USCIS denied 10.9 percent of applications in 2018, up from 10.3 percent in 2016. That is still down from decades past. Denial rates approached and exceeded 30 percent during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Where Seattle stands: The Seattle region, home to Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies that recruit thousands of immigrant workers annually through the legal immigration system, is the seventh worst major metro area for people applying for citizenship (#97 on the list of 103 major metro areas), with a backlog completion rate of 46.6 percent and median wait time of 15.2 months, according to the Boundless analysis.

It could have been worse. Seattle was helped by the fact that there’s a field office in the city, meaning immigrants don’t need to travel long distances. And while Seattle has long wait times to process applications, the region also ranks higher in its success converting immigrants into citizens. In 2017, 9.8 percent of the 113,125,000 eligible immigrants were approved for citizenship, earning Seattle the 23rd spot out of 49 cities in that category.

Tech hubs: Raleigh, N.C. (#9); Boston (#12); Portland, Ore. (#19); and Pittsburgh (#20) were among the regions with strong tech and research industries that ranked toward the top of the Boundless index. Austin, Texas, was at the bottom of the ranking (#103), and the San Francisco Bay Area was #83.

Although the report focuses specifically on citizenship and naturalization, immigration policies in general are a major issue for many tech companies. New rules impacting H-1B visas, commonly used by tech companies to hire skilled workers from overseas, will take effect April 1.

Differences by country of origin: The study found a negative correlation between a region’s naturalization rate and the percentage of its eligible immigrant population from Mexico — in other words, it’s tougher to become a citizen in these areas. There was a positive correlation between naturalization rate and percentage of population from Africa, Asia and Europe.

“These correlations probably arise from structural barriers to naturalization that affect different populations in different ways,” the report says.

Big picture: The report on the “State of New American Citizenship” comes amid the larger debate over U.S. immigration and President Trump’s proposed border wall.

The report makes a case for naturalization, in general, citing positive economic impacts on GDP, income, home ownership rates and tax revenue. It warns about potential negative implications from the growing backlog of citizenship applications.

GeekWire’s Numbers Geek Podcast: Immigration and the U.S. economy

“The data indicate that when USCIS devotes sufficient resources to a citizenship application surge, it’s possible to dramatically reduce a backlog within one year. That’s what happened in 2012, 2007, and 2000,” the report says. “On the other hand, when USCIS fails to devote sufficient resources, backlogs can get way out of hand. That’s what happened in the mid-1990s, and it appears to be happening now, as well.”

The report was authored by Boundless co-founder and president Doug Rand, who was assistant director for entrepreneurship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration.

The report is timed with the release of Boundless’s new naturalization product, which helps immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship with guidance from immigration attorneys. Boundless already offered a similar product for marriage-based green cards. The company, backed by investors including Trilogy Equity Partners, Foundry Group, Founders’ Co-op, and Two Sigma Ventures, spun out of Seattle-based startup studio Pioneer Square Labs in 2017 and has raised $3.5 million in seed funding.