Eligible Mexicans Still Unlikely to Seek Citizenship

PHOTO: Immigrants take the oath of citizenship at a special Valentines Day naturalization ceremony for married couples on February 14, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.John Moore/Getty Images
Immigrants take the oath of citizenship at a special Valentine's Day naturalization ceremony for married couples on February 14, 2013 in Tampa, Florida. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) held the Valentine's Day ceremony in Tampa for 28 married couples from 15 different countries.

One of the hottest points of contention in the immigration reform debate is whether to offer immigrants a path to citizenship.

Some anti-citizenship Republicans have said that a legalization program will give the Democrats millions of new voters. The problem is, existing data suggests that those fears are likely overblown.

More importantly, the data shows that Mexican immigrants, who make up 55 percent of the undocumented population, are less likely to become citizens than other groups.

Only about one-third of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens have actually naturalized. That's about half the rate of naturalization among legal immigrants from all other countries, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

That's not because Mexican immigrants aren't interested. Pew found that more than 90 percent of Hispanic immigrants who have not yet naturalized would like to. The obstacles, however, are sometimes too overwhelming.

More than a quarter said personal barriers such as a lack of English proficiency are a problem, while nearly 20 percent said financial and administrative barriers are preventing them from trying. The application fee is $680.

About a quarter said they have not tried or are not interested. Nearly a quarter said the citizenship test, which requires applicants to demonstrate knowledge of government and history, is too difficult.

Any immigration proposal is likely to include similar requirements. Even proponents of full citizenship rights for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants advocate an English-language requirement and the payment of back taxes.

Alternatives to citizenship are still better than no legal status. Legal permanent residency -- a green card -- eliminates the threat of deportation and grants the ability to work. But green card holders can't vote or receive some other benefits such as a U.S. passport or the right to apply for most federal jobs or run for office.

Most Hispanic immigrants say, though, that they would like to become citizens. Some want this for practical reasons and others because the United States feels like home. According to the survey, Mexicans are more likely than non-Mexicans to give practical reasons for becoming citizens. Non-Mexican naturalized Latinos are more likely to name family and sentimental motivations as driving factors.

As Pew notes, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was the last time the United States authorized a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Mexican immigrants were the main beneficiaries. But only about 40 percent of the 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who received a green card through IRCA were citizens by 2009.

The rates of naturalization among Mexican immigrants today is fairly similar.

In 2011, Mexican immigrants naturalized at a rate of about 36 percent compared to 68 percent for all non-Mexican immigrants. Latin American and Caribbean immigrants had a naturalization rate of 61 percent.

So why is naturalization so low among Mexicans specifically? Pew provides several possible explanations.

One reason is that Mexican immigrants maintain close ties to their home country -- literally -- due to its geographic proximity. Another is that Mexico did not allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship until the late 1990s, so Mexicans who didn't want to give up Mexican citizenship may not know that they can now hold both simultaneously. According to the Pew report, 18 percent of Mexican immigrants said Mexico does not allow dual citizenship and 11 percent didn't know.

The cost is also prohibitive for some. It's gone up dramatically since July 2007, when U.S. Customs and Immigration Services almost doubled the fee. Mexican immigrants are more likely to live in poverty than other Latino immigrants, and are thus more likely to find the costs burdensome.

Obviously, Mexico will continue to be physically close to the United States, so Mexican immigrants may always feel more of a geographic pull than other immigrants. But should immigration reform pass, a number of advocacy groups have said they will be ready and willing to help people navigate the application process. The rhetoric and public opinion surrounding immigration reform are also more pro-migrant than they were in 1986, and some groups have even pledged to help raise funds for those who cannot afford the application fee.

Whether immigration reform passes this year or even in the next several years is still a huge question mark. And any estimates about how many Mexican immigrants might seek citizenship is only speculation. However, even with the changed rhetoric and growing momentum behind reform, the idea that all immigrants will seek citizenship is clearly no guarantee.