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While immigration has been a high-profile and contested policy area in British politics for some decades, an often under-explored, but related policy area is citizenship. There is some evidence from different countries to suggest that migrants becoming citizens brings financial and non-financial benefits both to migrants themselves and wider society.

Currently, to become a British citizen, migrants must have lived in the UK for the last five years, held indefinite leave to remain (ILR) status for the last 12 months, prove their knowledge of the English language, pass the ‘Life in the UK’ test, and be of ‘good character’. Although in the UK those on ILR have almost all of the same rights as citizens, there are a number of significant differences. Namely, ILR status can be lost if the person has been away continuously from the UK for more than two years, and those on ILR have no right to vote in general elections.

Of course, the key question is why does citizenship matter if ILR status carries almost all of the same rights in the UK? Research from Switzerland suggests that obtaining citizenship can improve the political and social integration of immigrants. For example, naturalised citizens who were otherwise similar to non-citizen immigrants had a turnout of 58% in parliamentary elections, compared to 52% among Swiss-born natives. A study in Germany also suggested that immigrants were more likely to participate in political actions, such as campaign activity or attending community meetings, when they were German citizens, or if they were interested in becoming one.

There have been multiple studies of the economic impact of immigrants becoming naturalised citizens in the United States. These studies show a significant economic benefit not only to immigrants, but to the national economy as a whole. One study found that with citizenship, individual earnings increased by an average 8.9%, the employment rate increased by 2.2%, and homeownership rose by 6.3%. A further study found that naturalised citizens earned 8% more than non-citizens (after adjusting for differences in variables such as industry, occupation, language ability, country of origin and duration of residence), compared to an unadjusted gap of 41%. Another study estimated that every $1 increase in earnings generated by a newly naturalised citizen results in a $1.17 increase in GDP.

It must of course be noted that these studies did not take place in the UK and the process for citizenship, and its differences with ILR, vary in different countries. Nonetheless, these studies are suggestive of the potential benefits that a greater uptake of citizenship can bring not only to migrants, but to the country as a whole.

However, there are significant barriers to citizenship in the UK. The key one being the high fees charged to become a citizen. As of April 2018, to gain ILR status applicants must pay a fee of £2,389. The naturalisation fee is £1,330, meaning that an applicant has to pay over £3,500 in fees alone to become a British citizen. In comparison, the average naturalisation fee across Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the US, Norway and Sweden is only £225. The actual cost to the Home Office of processing a naturalisation fee is £372, showing high profiteering.

Polling has shown that Britons agree that it’s better for everyone if migrants become British citizens and that a constant ‘churn’ of migrants makes it difficult for people to integrate into society. However, there appears to be little sign of any intention to reduce naturalisation fees. The Government’s recent immigration white paper laid out its plans for a post-Brexit immigration system and it stated that: “Income generation through fees and charges will continue to underpin our future system”.

With further details of the Government’s integration plans due early this year, the Government should use that opportunity to look at improving the rates of, and reducing the cost of, migrants becoming British citizens.

Sam Lampier is a Researcher at Bright Blue