Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 1999 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Whose fault is it that Mexicans aren't becoming citizens?
A NEW REPORT from the U.S. Census Bureau is enough to give even strong,
pro-immigration advocates like myself pause: Recent immigrants are failing
to become citizens at the same rate as their predecessors. Only 35 percent
of the 25.8 million foreign-born persons living in the United States today
have naturalized, the lowest rate in this century.
And among Mexican immigrants, who make up almost one-third of the
foreign-born population, the rate is even lower -- a shocking 15 percent.
Even a few decades ago, the proportion of immigrants who became citizens was
much higher. In 1970, more than two-thirds of the foreign born were U.S.
citizens. What's going on here?
Many immigration advocates blame the Immigration and Naturalization Service
for the low rate at which immigrants are becoming citizens. They point to
the cumbersome naturalization process and the tremendous backlog in
applications that the INS has yet to process. The number of applicants
awaiting naturalization reached a peak of 1.8 million persons this year. But
even if the INS could solve its bureaucratic problems and instantly process
all these applications, the rate of citizenship would increase only
slightly, to about 41 percent. No, the INS isn't the only problem here.
Nor are all immigrants alike in their reluctance to become citizens.
Although naturalization rates are down for all immigrant groups, Europeans
and Asians become citizens at much higher rates than most Latin immigrants.
More than half of European immigrants are citizens -- 53 percent -- compared
with 44 percent of Asians; but only 31.5 percent of South Americans, 24
percent of Central Americans, and barely 15 percent of Mexicans are
In order to apply for citizenship, an immigrant must have lived as a legal,
permanent resident in the United States for at least five years, but many
immigrants from Latin America are recent arrivals. As a practical matter,
most immigrants who become citizens have lived here a decade or more, and
the process itself can take several years. Perhaps more importantly, many
Latino immigrants are ineligible to become citizens at all because they are
here illegally. Mexicans make up the single largest group of the 5 million
illegal aliens living in the United States. They can only become citizens
under current law if they return to their country of origin and apply to
immigrate here legally.
Is it possible, however, that many recent, legal Mexican immigrants simply
don't want to become Americans? A recent poll of Hispanics -- done for the
Spanish-language television network Univision -- suggests, to the contrary,
that Hispanics believe strongly in U.S. citizenship. Some 94 percent said
they believe that citizenship is important, including almost three-quarters
who said it was very important. Nonetheless, there is a huge gap between
Hispanic opinion and Mexican immigrant behavior. Whatever they may think
about U.S. citizenship, Mexican immigrants simply aren't becoming citizens
quickly or in large numbers.
Hispanics leaders ought to view this phenomenon with some alarm. After all,
the growing Hispanic political clout these leaders have been promising for
years depends on a population capable of voting. If they're serious about
helping immigrants, they ought to be devoting all the resources at their
disposal to teaching newcomers English and American history and encouraging
them to become U.S. citizens. And they ought not to use as an excuse for not
doing so the lame rationalization that there isn't government money
available to fund special citizenship programs.
An army of Hispanic volunteers with a desire to help their co-ethnics
become U.S. citizens is all it would take to turn around the abysmal
naturalization rates of Latino immigrants.
This ought to be a point of civic
pride in the Hispanic community, not to mention self-interest. If Mexicans
are slower to assimilate -- and the evidence suggests so -- Mexican
Americans and other U.S.-born Hispanics will suffer as well. Hispanic
leaders and civic organizations ought to make this issue their top priority
in the coming
Linda Chavez Archives
©1999, Creators Syndicate