Just Because Mexicans Can Become U.S. Citizens Doesn't Mean They Will

Legal Mexican immigrants are far less likely to choose naturalization than other immigrants, according to a new Pew report, which found that about two-thirds of the 5.4 million Mexican immigrants eligible to become U.S. citizens have not done so.

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The report, "The Path Not Taken," compared people from Mexico with eligible immigrants from other countries.

36% vs. 68%

Mexican nationals versus people born elsewhere
who beome U.S. citizens

That 32-percentage-point differential is significant, considering that Mexican immigrants account for one-third of the 12 million legal permanent residents in the United States, the largest of any ethnic group.

The low rate of naturalization isn't for lack of trying; a full nine in 10 Hispanic immigrants interviewed said they would naturalize if they could. When asked why they didn't, about 26 percent cited language or personal barriers and 18 percent cited financial or administrative issues. About 26 percent indicated they either haven't tried to become a U.S. citizen yet or weren't interested.

The naturalization rates indicate that a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the majority of whom come from Mexico, would not necessarily mean that they'll choose to become citizens, the Pew report found. Instead, illegal immigrants might opt to take the first step--becoming a legal permanent resident--which would remove the threat of deportation while allowing them to legally work.

Some other findings from the report:

56% of legal permanent residents in 2011 became U.S. citizens, the highest peak in 30 years, for a total of 15.5 million U.S. naturalized citizens that year.

39% of the U.S. foreign-born population in 2011 were naturalized citizens. About 31 percent were legal residents, while an estimated 28 percent are undocumented.

9.7 million permanent residents are eligible for naturalization. Mexican immigrants make up the largest share, at 36 percent.

72% of legal permanent residents who are Mexican speak little to no English, compared with 69 percent of all legal immigrants. About 28 percent of legal Mexican immigrants speak English well.

59% of legal Mexican immigrants have been in the U.S. for 20 years or more, compared with 47 percent of all legal immigrants.

22% of naturalized Mexican immigrants, the largest share, said they chose U.S. citizenship for its civil and legal rights. In comparison, about 16 percent, the largest share, of other naturalized Latinos cited family as the reason they naturalized.