The daunting, invisible barrier to US citizenship
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The daunting, invisible barrier to US citizenship

Washington : DC : USA | Feb 04, 2013 at 2:07 PM PST
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Mexican immigrants walk in line

Although they could naturalize, almost two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico aren’t US citizens. In fact, their rate of naturalization—36 percent to be exact—is only half that of legal immigrants from all other countries combined, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data that was released today by the Pew Hispanic Center. The finding may shed light on the contentious “pathway to citizenship” component of recent US immigration reform proposals.

Why do these immigrants eschew citizenship?

A nationwide survey of Hispanic immigrants the Pew Hispanic Center conducted explored that question. The reasons that Hispanic immigrants, who are legal permanent residents, identified for not yet seeking citizenship status were:

  • personal barriers, such as a lack of English proficiency (26 percent)
  • administrative barriers, such as the financial cost of naturalization (18 percent)

The survey also uncovered that more than nine in ten Hispanic immigrants who haven’t yet naturalized say they would if they could. This seems to indicate that personal and administrative barriers are high enough to present a daunting invisible barrier to citizenship.

Many anticipate that creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally is one of the most contentious components of the immigration reform legislation that Congress will consider this year.

Mexican immigrants

Mexican immigrants are the largest group of immigrants who are in the US illegally. They far outstrip every other nationality, accounting for 6.1 million (55 percent) of the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the US as of 2011.

Mexicans also compose the largest group of legal permanent residents. They account for 3.9 million out of 12 million legal permanent residents.

The Pew Hispanic Center's report is entitled "The Path Not Taken; Two-Thirds of Legal Mexican Immigrants are not U.S. Citizens." In light of its data analysis, it appears that even if legislators create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, it doesn’t mean they all would pursue that option.

Many could select an intermediate status that falls short of citizenship, such as legal permanent residency. That status would remove the threat of deportation, enable immigrants to work legally and require them to pay taxes. However, as non-citizens, they would not enjoy the full rights of US citizenship, including the right to vote.

The last time the US government created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally was in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). A 2010 study by the US Department of Homeland Security found that about 40 percent of the 2.7 million immigrants who obtained a green card as a result of IRCA had naturalized by 2009.

Why they seek citizenship?

Why do some immigrants muster the determination required to hurdle daunting, invisible personal and administrative barriers to US citizenship? The Pew survey asked naturalized Latino immigrants for the reasons they became US citizens. They answered:

  • To acquire civil and legal rights, such as the right to vote (18 percent)
  • To access to the benefits and opportunities of U.S. citizenship (16 percent)
  • For family-related reasons (15 percent)

Mexican naturalized citizens are more likely to say they became citizens for practical reasons, such as to acquire civil and legal rights (22 percent) or to receive certain benefits or opportunities that accompany citizenship (20 percent). Non-Mexican naturalized Latinos most often cite family reasons (16 percent) as the motivating factor.

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most legal immigrants from mexico do not become citizens
Almost two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico have not become US citizens, according to analysis released today by the Pew Hispanic Center. [Image: Microsoft Office Images]
Billie Greenwood is based in Davenport, Iowa, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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