Better integration thanks to naturalization

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Better integration thanks to naturalization

Becoming a Swiss citizen promotes immigrants’ integration into Swiss society. After naturalizing, new citizens’ annual earnings increased by an average of CHF 5,000 compared to their unnaturalized peers. This boost benefits the new citizens, the state, and society as a whole.

What is the best way to further immigrant integration? This has long been a topic of discussion among specialists. Researchers Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, and Dalston Ward of the Immigration Policy Lab, a collaboration between ETH Zurich and Stanford University, have identified a factor that advances integration: becoming a citizen.

"Naturalization catalyzes integration," says Dominik Hangartner, Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich. He adds that gaining citizenship boosts new citizens’ annual earnings by an average of CHF 5,000 over the subsequent 15 years. Some immigrants gain more from citizenship than others, however: "The positive income effects are greatest for people with the lowest wages and more marginalized immigrants, particularly those from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia" explains Hangartner.

Innovative methods

How exactly could the study authors show that naturalization caused new citizens’ higher incomes’ After all, immigrants who apply for citizenship differ from those who do not, and successful applicants differ from unsuccessful applicants. No causal connection can be drawn from wage differences between immigrants with and without Swiss citizenship, says Hangartner. "Understanding the causal effect of citizenship requires comparing immigrants who are similar in all characteristics except their passport" he explains.

For this reason, the authors concentrated on municipalities that used a secret ballot process to decide individual citizenship applications until 2003. They then focused on ballots with close results. "If someone receives citizenship by a small majority of votes or their application is only just rejected, it’s as good as random," explains co-author Dalston Ward, postdoctoral fellow at ETH Zurich.

Specifically, the researchers focused on 46 Swiss-German municipalities and, with the help of data on pension contributions from the Central Compensation office, compared the income of the applicants who narrowly did or did not receive citizenship before and after the decision. "This allowed us to conclude that naturalization caused the increased differences in income between the two groups after the citizenship decision," says Ward.

As expected, the people who only just received or just missed out on citizenship were very similar in terms of background characteristics such as earnings prior to the ballot, gender, and origin country. This method allowed the researchers to isolate the influence of naturalization on integration.

Naturalization acts as a catalyst

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? "Our study shows that naturalization has a positive long-term effect on economic integration," says Hangartner. This calls for supporting immigrants naturalize once they fulfil the residency requirements, as "the earlier a person receives citizenship, the sooner they can become better integrated in Switzerland and the higher the effects of naturalization on lifetime income" says Hangartner.

This also benefits the municipalities in which immigrants live. In one of their next projects, the Immigration Policy Lab investigates the effects of the City of Zurich’s approach to motivate eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship. They aim to identify both the obstacles in the way of naturalization and how to remove them.


Hainmueller J, Hangartner D, Ward D. The Effect of Citizenship on the Long-Term Earnings of Marginalized Immigrants: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Switzerland. Science Advances, 04 December 2019. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay1610 .

Florian Meyer