slow to seek U.S. citizenship
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 29, 2005
Olivia Navarro, an immigrant from
Mexico, waited 13 years to become a U.S. citizen.
After she finally took the oath one recent Friday, she wondered what
took her so long.
"I feel like the first lady of the United States," beamed Navarro, 55, a
Phoenix waitress who has lived in the United States since 1971 and
became eligible for citizenship in 1992.
Navarro is not alone. Mexican
immigrants eligible to become U.S. citizens are far less likely to naturalize
than other major immigrant groups, limiting their political clout at a time when
the Mexican immigrant population is booming in Arizona and the rest of the
country, experts say.
But that is changing, in part because a wave of recent state and federal laws
and proposals aimed at restricting benefits to immigrants is prompting more
Mexican immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens, experts say.
In 1995, just 19 percent of eligible Mexicans had become naturalized U.S.
citizens. In 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, 34 percent
had done so, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research institute
in Washington, D.C.
But they still lag other major immigrant groups.
Naturalization rates for immigrants from Europe and Canada held steady at about
65 percent. Asians had the highest naturalization rates: 67 percent in 2001
compared with 56 percent 10 years earlier.
In July 2003, Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., and other Hispanic members of Congress,
launched workshops to help more immigrants apply for citizenship.
Since then, Pastor has held four workshops, most recently on Feb. 12, and
completed 427 citizenship applications.
"My experience over the years is that if you make it convenient, people will
come," Pastor said.
Navarro, a waitress at El Matador restaurant in downtown Phoenix, credited
Pastor with prodding her to take the step. Every time Pastor ate at the
restaurant, he would chide her, "When are you going to become a citizen?"
Navarro said she had the desire for years. But some big expense always got in
the way. In 1993, her husband had heart surgery. In 1996, her mother needed an
operation. In 1997, her father died.
Navarro finally filled out the paperwork last March. She paid the $390
application fee with her tax refund.
Randy Capps, an immigration expert at the Urban Institute, said low
naturalization rates hurt Mexican immigrants politically because one of the
biggest benefits of becoming a citizen is the right to vote.
"What that does is dilute Mexican voting power and generally disenfranchises the
community," he said.
According to a 2001 Urban Institute study, Mexicans represented 28 percent of
the nearly 8 million immigrants in the United States eligible to become
naturalized citizens. But they represented only 9 percent of recently
naturalized citizens. At least 190,000 of the immigrants eligible to become
citizens live in Arizona, where the Mexican immigrant population now exceeds
half a million people.
In contrast, Asians represented 27 percent of the immigrants eligible to become
U.S. citizens but 43 percent of recently naturalized citizens, according to the
There are many reasons why Mexican immigrants are slow to become U.S. citizens,
said Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National
Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
The primary reason, she said, is because "a lot (of Mexican immigrants) come
here thinking they will come here temporarily and return."
Economics also is a factor. In February 2002, the federal government increased
the price of applying for citizenship to $390 from $310.
"It costs a lot of money to naturalize," Waslin said.
She said one of the reasons naturalization rates among Mexican immigrants are
rising is out of fear. In the late 1990s, Congress passed laws that restricted
legal immigrants' access to public benefits and made it easier to deport them,
she said. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government has
begun aggressively deporting immigrants who commit crimes.
"I think there is a fear factor involved there," Waslin said.
She said expanding civics and English classes could help improve naturalization
rates. So could reducing federal backlogs.
In Phoenix, immigrants wait eight to 10 months for their citizenship application
to be processed, said Al Gallmann, assistant district director of U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services in Phoenix. As of the end of February,
5,600 citizenship applications were pending.
Despite the backlogs, the Phoenix office has seen a slight increase in
citizenship applications. Since October, the start of the fiscal year, the
office had received, on average, 469 citizenship applications per month, up from
442 per month the year before, Gallmann said.
As for Navarro, she celebrated her new citizenship with a sip of tequila. But
first she registered to vote.