Reforms in Germany that allowed some immigrants to naturalise up to eight years faster than others boosted their economic and social assimilation. That is the central finding of research by Christina Gathmann and Nicolas Keller, published in the December 2018 issue of The Economic Journal.

Their study finds particularly powerful effects of earlier eligibility for citizenship on immigrant women. While both men and women have better jobs, women are more likely to have a permanent work contract and a white-collar job, while men are less likely to be self-employed. Women in this position also improve their German language skills, marry later and have their first child later.

Overall, a more liberal citizenship policy seems to be a powerful catalyst for assimilation in countries with traditionally restrictive citizenship policies.

The researchers note that voters in many European countries seem to be dissatisfied with immigration and how immigrants assimilate, not only economically but also socially and culturally. Indeed, immigrants often have much lower employment rates and earnings than natives.

Can immigrant assimilation be influenced and improved by governments? Specifically, does a liberal citizenship policy boost assimilation among non-EU immigrants?

Two reforms in Germany in 1991 and 2000 make it possible to isolate the effect of residency requirements on economic assimilation. The reforms allowed immigrants who arrived in Germany as children to naturalise after eight years of residency, while immigrants who arrived as teenagers (15 and above) needed 15 years of residency. The analysis compares immigrants who arrived in Germany at a similar age in the same year but face different residency requirements.

Shorter residency requirements boost assimilation

The results show that shorter residency requirements increase the propensity to naturalise by 25%. The effect is strongest for non-EU immigrants as EU immigrants have the same access to the labour market as natives.

Shorter residency requirements also lead to substantial improvements in the labour market position of immigrants: both men and women have better jobs. Women are more likely to have a permanent work contract and a white-collar job, while men are less likely to be self-employed.

The biggest effects on earnings are for immigrant women: those with an eight-year residency requirement catch up much faster to native earnings than women with a 15-year residency requirement.

Most of this improvement comes from changes in labour supply: women are 6% more likely to work, work more hours and have more stable jobs. In addition, both men and women also improve their human capital: men invest more in formal education, while women mostly improve their German language skills.

In a subsequent study (Gathmann et al, 2017), the researchers document that shorter residency requirements also influence marriage and fertility decisions. Traditionally, immigrants marry at much younger ages – women on average at age 20 – and have more children than natives at a younger age.

Immigrant men and women who face shorter residency requirements marry later and postpone the birth of their first child by almost one and a half years. In addition, the age gaps between partners declines from over four years to three years, suggesting that partnerships become more equal for eligible immigrants.

Catalyst or crown?

Some view citizenship as a ‘crown’ that should be bestowed on well integrated immigrants. Many countries in continental Europe, including Germany and Switzerland, share this perspective and have traditionally followed restrictive citizenship policies with residency requirements of 10 years and more.

Others have viewed citizenship as a ‘catalyst’ for assimilation. This view guides citizenship policy in traditional immigration countries like the United States and Canada, which require only about four or five years of residency before an immigrant can naturalise.

Casual evidence suggests that traditional immigration countries are by and large successful in integrating immigrants economically and socially. But are these differences caused by the liberal citizenship policy, by a more flexible labour market or by differences between immigrants?

The results of this research clearly support the view that citizenship is a ‘catalyst’ for assimilation – even in countries with a generous welfare state and little history of immigration.

Access to Citizenship and the Economic Assimilation of Immigrants’ by Christina Gathmann and Nicolas Keller.

Ole Monscheuer

University of Heidelberg