Union Tribune

September 18, 2003

Mexican immigrants slow to take citizenship


WASHINGTON Mexican immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens at nearly double their rate for 1995, but they still lag far behind the naturalization rates of other immigrant groups, according to a new study.

Demographers at the Urban Institute report that 34 percent of Mexican natives eligible for naturalization in 2001 the last year for which comprehensive figures were available became citizens. That is up from 19 percent in 1995. During the same period, the naturalization rate for other Latin Americans jumped from 40 percent to 58 percent, while the rate for Asian immigrants climbed from 56 percent to 67 percent. The rate for emigrants from Europe and Canada dropped from 66 percent to 65 percent.

Naturalization is important because it's the first step in assimilation, said immigration scholar Tamara Jacoby.

"That is the moment you start to use the word 'us' rather than 'them' to talk about Americans," Jacoby said. "Not only is that psychologically important but, when people become citizens, they start to act in different ways. They buy houses, start to move up the job ladder and feel they really have a stake in this country."

Jeffrey Passel, one of the study's authors, cited several reasons for the jump in the naturalization of native Mexicans. In 1998, he noted, Mexico permitted dual nationality, essentially encouraging immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Two years earlier, he said, the U.S. Congress denied non-citizens access to some benefits.

Explaining why the naturalization rate of Mexicans lags so far behind the others is more difficult, he said. "But Mexican immigrants as a group have low levels of education and don't speak English well, and those things remain barriers."

Jacoby, who is with the Manhattan Institute in New York, said the federal government should do more to encourage citizenship among those who are eligible. Immigrants can become naturalized if they have had permanent residence visas for five years, or if they are married to a U.S. citizen and have been in the country for three years.

Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, also called for more outreach to the nearly 11 million immigrants identified in the Urban Institute Study as eligible, or soon to be eligible, for naturalization.

"We have a growing number of immigrants whom we want to be full members of our society and to pledge allegiance to America," he said. " . . . to make this happen, we need to encourage people to come forward, help them understand the language and American ideals, and the process by which they can get sworn in."

Sharry said the federal government provides some support for language classes, but not nearly enough to meet the need. He said the government could join in partnership with employers and labor unions to promote naturalization.

Although immigration researcher Steven Camarota generally disagrees sharply with Sharry's efforts on behalf of illegal immigrants, he echoed the call for action to encourage citizenship.

The U.S. immigration system shows "a complete lack of the sense that we need to integrate and incorporate immigrants into American society," said Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies. "That is crucially important for the future of the United States."

The study also found that:

The 2.3 million Mexicans eligible for citizenship in 2001 were more than 10 times the number eligible from any other country. The other leading sources were Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the Philippines, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union.

California is home to about one-third of those currently eligible for naturalization. Other states with large numbers of eligible immigrants are New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.

The foreign-born population of the U.S. reached 34 million in 2002, more than triple the 1972 figure.

Twenty-five percent of citizenship-eligible adults have less than a ninth-grade education.