Guest Editorial: Swap green cards for passports

Bloomberg View
Feb. 18
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Almost 9 million of America’s 13 million legal permanent residents are eligible to become U.S. citizens — yet haven’t. It’s worth trying to increase that number, both for these individuals and for the country they’ve made their home.

A healthy democracy needs people to be engaged. Permanent residents can’t be fully involved unless they’re citizens, with the rights and duties this entails. Historically, the U.S. has been unusually good at merging successive waves of immigrants with its native-born people — partly by expecting and encouraging lawful immigrants to become Americans. This fine tradition stands in need of renewal.

The argument is about more than civic virtue, inspiring though it may be. Dollars and cents are involved as well. Immigrants tend to be strivers in any case, but the evidence says citizenship makes them even more productive. Once they swap their green cards for U.S. passports, they invest more in their careers, and so do their employers.

They’re more productive, so they make more money; they make more money, so they pay more taxes. Both the new citizens and their new country are better off.

So why don’t more green-card holders choose to become citizens? A sense of loyalty to their home countries no doubt plays a part. But another reason is that the process isn’t easy. They have to wait five years, pay a $680 fee, and deal with a bureaucracy not known for its friendliness or efficiency.

The bureaucracy in question — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — relies on those fees, so don’t expect it to press for a cheaper, faster system. (What would become of its premium expedited service?) High fees help to pay for refugee and asylum services, as well as for free naturalization for those who serve in the U.S. military. Those are excellent purposes. They should be financed not with fees levied on new citizens but through a separate appropriation.

U.S. citizenship also comes with another price. Once you’re an American, regardless of where in the world you work, you’ll be subject to U.S. taxes. For internationally mobile talent, that’s an issue — not so much because those affected have to pay more taxes (the policy raises almost no revenue), but because complying with the system is a colossal nuisance. Admittedly, the U.S. is not alone in taxing citizens working abroad in this way. Eritrea does it, too.

Because newly naturalized citizens tend to skew Democratic, the Obama administration’s campaign to naturalize more eligible residents has aroused suspicions that its motive is political. Yet the campaign is also deeply conservative. Reducing bureaucracy and simplifying taxes — all the while encouraging love of country — are all causes that should appeal to Republicans, too.