Legal resident Edwin Ramirez says he must learn English to pursue citizenship.… (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington…)
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.
As lawmakers wrangle over changes that could offer a path to citizenship to many of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are here illegally, not all immigrants who become eligible actually go through with naturalization. Often, the immigrant journey simply ends with permanent legal residency.
In 2011, 61 percent of eligible immigrants became citizens, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center. But among Mexicans, who are by far the largest group of immigrants in the country, the citizenship rate was just 36 percent. Central Americans also had low rates; the highest rates were among Southeast Asians, Cubans and Russians, perhaps because many from these countries came as refugees. Refugees, who are generally unable to return to their home countries, naturalize at a higher-than-average rate.
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.
The “path to citizenship” currently being debated is more accurately a path to permanent residency, said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science in Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California at Irvine. After five years of permanent residency, immigrants are eligible to apply for citizenship.
If changes were enacted, DeSipio predicted that the most engaged immigrants would start the process immediately. “We would see a big spike of up to 1 or 2 million new applications for citizenship five or six years after today’s unauthorized immigrants achieve permanent legal status,” he said, adding that thereafter there would probably be a steady flow of several hundred thousand a year.
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.
“Permanent residents face a greater rate of deportation today than in the early 1990s,” DeSipio said. “So incentive to naturalize has ratcheted up a little bit.”
In addition, more countries now allow dual nationality, so more people can become Americans without giving up rights in their country of birth.
Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, an immigrant advocacy organization, said that practically everyone her organization works with hopes for citizenship rather than merely a green card.
“A lot has changed between 1986 and today,” she said. “There used to be a view that the line was blurred . . . but I think the line has become brighter about whether you’re a citizen or not and how you’re viewed.”
Many feel that only naturalization will allow them to feel fully engaged and accepted in their new country.
“They don’t want to be a second-class citizen,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director at CASA of Maryland, an advocacy group. “They want to be people who make a full contribution to society — people who can work in the federal government, people who can vote, people who can make sure their families can also become citizens.”
But even for eligible immigrants, the process of naturalization can be daunting. Some are confused about how to apply. Some lack the required English proficiency. Some fear they will not pass the civics test, and some are daunted by the $680 application fee.