Naturalization Rate For Immigrants Hits 25-Year High In U.S.

Wednesday, March 28th 2007, 8:35 pm
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The number of immigrants who became American citizens reached an all-time high in 2005, and the percentage of those who did so reached its highest level in a quarter-century, according to a study released Wednesday.

Growth in legal immigration, as well as a greater tendency among foreign-born residents to embrace U.S. citizenship, accounts for the trend, the Pew Hispanic Center said in its report based on federal census and immigration data.

The nation's 12.8 million naturalized citizens made up more than half of all legal immigrants living in the United States two years ago, compared with a low of 38 percent in 1990, Pew researchers found. The percentage of immigrants becoming citizens in 2005 was about the same as in 1980.

``Today's immigrants are interested in becoming U.S. citizens, and that's showing up in the increased percentage of those who are eligible taking advantage of it,'' said Jeffrey Passel, the study's lead researcher. ``It's reached a point where the majority of those eligible to naturalize have done so.''

The analysis also showed that immigrants who qualify for citizenship are applying for it more quickly than in the past. A decade ago, about two-thirds of the eligible immigrants who had been in the United States for more than 20 years were naturalized. Now, about three-quarters of such long-term residents have become citizens.

Experts said the reasons why the naturalization rate has gone up are probably as varied as the individuals who apply for citizenship.

Some of the theories proposed in the study and by others in the field include uncertainty generated by immigration reform and stricter national security policies, interest in voting and other benefits of citizenship, and an increased acceptance of dual nationality in Mexico and other countries.

Although European immigrants are among those most likely to seek citizenship, naturalization rates have been rising faster for other expatriates, the nonpartisan Pew Center found.

The number of naturalized citizens from the Middle East, for example, grew 156 percent from 1995 to 2005, with the most rapid growth occurring after 2001. With their countries of origin in political turmoil and facing suspicion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they may be more eager to secure their rights and ability to remain here, experts said.

``There's a sense that we're in a world where Americans are getting more and more concerned about legality, citizenship status, security _ it's better to be on the right side of that line,'' said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with New York's Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. ``But I hope people are feeling they want to belong. We want a democracy where everyone participates.''

To become a citizen, legal permanent residents who are adults, have lived in the United States for at least five years and can speak English must pass a test demonstrating knowledge of the Constitution, undergo a background check and take an oath of allegiance.

Along with the ability to participate in the immigration debate at the ballot box, citizenship also offers the right to bring relatives still abroad to the U.S. Immigrants who elect to become full members of society do so because ``they see the consequences of having a voice,'' said Mark Silverman, of the pro-immigrant San Francisco group Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Experts expressed disappointment that many immigrants take the step out of fear.

``It would be ideal if people were making the decision to become an American as an expression of full-fledged commitment to this country, not as a defensive measure,'' said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.

Even as naturalization has became more attractive, the number of immigrants without authorization to be in the United States also grew sharply during the last decade, according to the Pew report.

The study estimates undocumented immigrants now make up nearly a third of the total immigrant population, compared to one-fifth in 1995.

The Pew Hispanic Center describes itself as a nonpartisan research organization devoted to improving understanding of the nation's Hispanic population.