Pew Study: Not All Immigrants Want Citizenship

A new study examines why some eligible immigrants choose not to seek naturalization. For some, it's because they don't want to be U.S. citizens.
by | February 7, 2013
 

Whether or not to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is a major point of contention among the nation's lawmakers. Yet a new report suggests that many illegal immigrants wouldn’t try to naturalize, even if they had a way to do so.

In 2011, about two-thirds of the more than 5 million legal Mexican immigrants eligible for citizenship had not yet naturalized, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center. The citizenship rates among legal non-Mexican immigrants were nearly double, but roughly a third of those from other countries had still not become citizens either.

While the reasons for not naturalizing varied (administrative and personal barriers were the most popular), 7 percent of the surveyed Hispanic immigrants said they didn't want to become citizens.

Republicans in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee have voiced repeated opposition to the idea that comprehensive immigration reform should include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

At the committee's first hearing on immigration reform last week, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina questioned the assumption that all immigrants would even want to become citizens.

“What about those who are currently here who do not desire citizenship? Would it be forced upon them or could they opt out?” Gowdy asked.

If the Pew survey is any barometer, most Hispanic immigrants who haven’t naturalized actually have a desire to do so, but other factors reduce their willingness to try. Legal permanent residents surveyed said they hadn’t naturalized either because they needed to learn English; they found the citizenship test was too difficult; or the cost of the naturalization application ($680) was too high.

“A lot of immigrants now and historically think they’re going to go home eventually,” said Jeffrey Passel, a co-author of the report.

“We always think that everybody who immigrates wants to stay here forever,” said Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, an economist at San Diego State University. Amuedo-Dorantes immigrated to the United States from Spain as a student and only naturalized after learning that she could maintain dual citizenship.

“What does naturalization buy you? Voting, okay,” Amuedo-Dorantes said. “[But] if you’re legal, you have access to health care. In fact, you don’t need to be naturalized to have access to [welfare benefits].”

Recent editorial cartoons have satirized immigration reform as a Democratic party ploy to expand an increasingly important voting bloc. In the 2012 presidential election, 71 percent of Latino voters supported Barack Obama and 27 percent supported Mitt Romney, according to a Pew analysis of CNN exit polling. The right to vote may be a motivating factor for Democratic politicians to push citizenship for illegal immigrants, but in the Pew study, few naturalized immigrants (13 percent) cited the right to vote as their main reason for pursuing citizenship.

Pew researchers drew from administrative data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey as well as Pew's own nationally representative bilingual telephone survey of 1,765 Latino adults in Sept.-Oct. 2012. The Pew survey had a margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

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