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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 1999 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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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 naturalized.

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 decade.

Linda Chavez Archives


©1999, Creators Syndicate