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The path not taken

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Pew Hispanic Center Percent naturalized among eligible immigrantsAccording to a recent study by the Pew Research Hispanic Center, only about one-third of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have pursued the path to citizenship. This rate of naturalization is only half that of legal immigrants from all other countries combined.

The Wall Street Journal notes that one reason for these low numbers may be because of the requirements for citizenship: “immigrants must shell out at least $680, pass an oral exam, present five years’ worth of tax returns and submit to a background check for things such as criminal convictions.”

But the Washington Post also reveals other reasons for many immigrants’ hesitancy to become US citizens: they don’t want to give up their ties to their home country.

For 13 years, Rafael Cohen, an immigrant from Mexico, was eligible to become a citizen of the United States. But something held him back.

“I guess I felt I was maintaining more of a connection to my Mexican citizenship by remaining a green card holder than actually becoming a citizen,” said Cohen, 36, a musician who moved to the District when he was 9 and became a permanent resident in 1994.

Finally, the birth of his daughter last year persuaded him to apply. “Some of the immigration laws that are in place . . . there’s these weird situations where you can be deported as a green card holder,” he said.

The Post continues:

Other factors include length of U.S. residency (immigrants who have lived here longer are more likely to naturalize) and income level (higher incomes correlate with higher naturalization rates). People from English-speaking countries are more likely to become citizens, as are those with immediate family members back home. Asians are more likely to become citizens than Latinos, while people from countries near the United States tend to naturalize at lower rates. . . .

Recent history shows that eligibility does not always lead to action. The last time a path to citizenship was offered to illegal immigrants, in 1986, only about 40 percent of those who obtained green cards through the legislation went on to become citizens during the 13 years that followed, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Homeland Security.

But application rates might be higher this time around, in part because of laws enacted in the 1990s that put permanent residents in a more precarious position. Their green cards can be revoked if they are convicted of a felony, and the U.S. government has also been monitoring green card holders more strictly to see whether they actually live in the United States.

Read the whole report at the Pew Research Hispanic Center.

Related: Can you pass the US Citizenship Test? and Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education

AEI