More Asian immigrants become U.S. citizens
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — While a raucous public debate swirls around the estimated 12 million, largely Hispanic, illegal immigrants living in the United States, little attention is paid to the nearly equal number of foreign-born residents who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
These new citizens come mainly from Asia. A smaller percentage of Latinos go through the naturalization process.
Forty-one percent of the 537,151 new Americans in 2004 — 218,874 — were from Asian countries, according to the federal Office of Immigration Statistics. And while Mexico tops the list of home countries of new U.S. citizens that year, the next five home countries are in Asia: India, Philippines, Vietnam, China and Korea. The same trends hold true over the five-year period ending in 2004.
Compare that with the makeup of the illegal immigrants in the United States in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center: 56 percent were Mexican, another 22 percent were from the rest of Latin America, while 13 percent were from Asia.
“The question isn’t so much why it is that Asians naturalize at a higher rate,” said Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American studies at University of California, Davis. “It’s why Latinos and Mexicans don’t naturalize at higher rates.”
Hing and others who work with and study immigrants give lots of reasons for more Asians and fewer Latinos becoming citizens:
— Cultural differences lead Asians to place more value on U.S. citizenship.
— Hispanics have a harder time with the immigration system because many have less education and come into the country illegally.
— The long distance from Asia drives a stronger desire to break ties with the home country, while the closeness of Mexico has the opposite effect.
Like many new citizens, several intertwining reasons put Mohammed Ibrahim, an Iraqi Kurd, on the path to taking the oath of U.S. citizenship on Friday in a Nashville, Tenn., federal courtroom.
“One of them was when I applied for citizenship, there was no hope to go back to Iraq,” Ibrahim, 57, said of his war-ravaged country. “The second thing is to be able to benefit (by) being (a) citizen of one of the greatest countries of the world.”
When Ibrahim left Sulemany in northern Iraq with his wife and three children in 1996, Saddam Hussein’s regime was targeting Kurds like Ibrahim, an engineer, who were helping to rebuild the northern province.
Originally settled in Buffalo, N.Y., Ibrahim moved his family to Nashville, where the large Kurdish community includes several of his friends.
Now, with Hussein out of the picture, Ibrahim has another reason for seeking U.S. citizenship: Only Kurds who have become U.S. citizens are able to return and help with the reconstruction of Iraq.
Hing believes Asian culture drives more immigrants from that part of the world to become U.S. citizens.
“It became a tradition. It was a habit. It was something you did as an Asian immigrant,” said Hing, who is Chinese-American.
Mexicans, Hing said, can more easily move back and forth between their home and the United States and that makes them less likely to go through the naturalization process. “It was no big deal for them coming back and forth,” Hing said. “It was not part of their psyche to become naturalized.”
Distance from home and the likelihood of returning there is a factor driving which immigrants go on to become U.S. citizens, said Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, which studies immigration.
The fact that many Mexicans come into the country illegally also makes it more difficult for them to go through the naturalization process, said Passel. A person must be a legal resident for five years before applying for citizenship.
David Lubell, state director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, doesn’t buy the cultural difference argument. “If there was an Asian country nearby (the United States), you’d have the same thing,” Lubell said. He blames the immigration system and the fact that low-skilled workers have less access to visas, which would put them in the country legally and on the path toward citizenship.
Mabel Arroyo, an immigration attorney in Nashville who works mostly with Hispanic clients, said she finds learning English is often a barrier. “They don’t know the language and they don’t have a lot of interest in learning the language.”
Also, she said, some Mexicans have a gut aversion to becoming U.S. citizens because they think they would be renouncing their home country, what they call “piso la bandera” which means “I step on my flag.”
Whatever reticence Mexicans and other Hispanics may have about becoming U.S. citizens is likely to change, Hing and Passel said.
The anger flowing from many of the immigration protests will lead more to seek citizenship, the two experts believe, so they can exercise what the citizenship test calls an important American right: the right to vote.
States with the highest number of immigrants who became new citizens in 2004:
1. California, 145,593
2. New York, 66,234
3. Florida, 43,795
4. Texas, 35,417
5. New Jersey, 30,291
6. Illinois, 29,432
7. Massachusetts, 16,263
8. Michigan, 14,615
9. Virginia, 13,478
10. Washington, 12,668