WASHINGTON – For 13 years Rafael Cohen, an immigrant from Mexico, was eligible to become a citizen of the United States. But something held him back.
“I guess I felt I was maintaining more of a connection to my Mexican citizenship by remaining a green card holder than actually becoming a citizen,” said Cohen, 36, a musician who moved to the District of Columbia when he was 9 and became a permanent resident in 1994.
Finally, the birth of his daughter last year persuaded him to apply. “Some of the immigration laws that are in place . . . there’s these weird situations where you can be deported as a green card holder,” he said.
As lawmakers wrangle over reforms that could offer a path to citizenship to many of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in America illegally, not all immigrants who become eligible actually go through with naturalization. Often, the immigrant journey simply ends with permanent legal residency.
In 2011, 61 percent of eligible immigrants became citizens, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center. But among Mexicans, who are by far the largest group of immigrants in the country, the citizenship rate was just 36 percent.
Other Central Americans also had low rates; the highest rates were among Southeast Asians, Cubans and Russians, perhaps because many from these countries came as refugees. Refugees, who are generally unable to return to their home countries, naturalize at a higher-than-average rate.
Other factors include length of U.S. residency (immigrants who have lived there longer are more likely to naturalize) and income level (higher incomes correlate with higher naturalization rates). People from English-speaking countries are more likely to become citizens, as are those with immediate family members back home.
Asians are more likely to become citizens than Latinos, while people from countries near the United States tend to naturalize at lower rates.
The “path to citizenship” currently being debated is more accurately a path to permanent residency, said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science in Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California at Irvine. After five years of permanent residency, immigrants are eligible to apply for citizenship.
If reforms were enacted, DeSipio predicted that the most engaged immigrants will start the process immediately.
“We would see a big spike of up to 1 or 2 million new applications for citizenship five or six years after today’s unauthorized immigrants achieve permanent legal status,” he said, adding that thereafter there will probably be a steady flow of several hundred thousand a year.
Recent history shows that eligibility does not always lead to action.
The last time a path to citizenship was offered to illegal immigrants, in 1986, only around 40 percent of those who obtained green cards through the legislation went on to become citizens during the 13 years that followed, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Homeland Security.
But application rates might be higher this time around, in part because of laws enacted in the 1990s that put permanent residents in a more precarious position. Their green cards can be revoked if they are convicted of a felony, and the U.S. government has also been monitoring green card holders more strictly to see whether they actually live in the United States.
“Permanent residents face a greater rate of deportation today than in the early 1990s,” DeSipio said. “So incentive to naturalize has ratcheted up a little bit.”
In addition, more countries now allow dual nationality, so more people can become Americans without giving up rights in their country of birth.
Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, an immigrant advocacy organization, said that practically everyone her organization works with hopes for citizenship rather than merely a green card.
“A lot has changed between 1986 and today,” she said. “There used to be a view that the line was blurred . . . but I think the line has become brighter about whether you’re a citizen or not and how you’re viewed.”
Many feel that only naturalization will allow them to feel fully engaged and accepted in their new country. “They don’t want to be a second-class citizen,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director at CASA de Maryland, an advocacy group. “They want to be people who make a full contribution to society — people who can work in the federal government, people who can vote, people who can make sure their families can also become citizens.”
But even for eligible immigrants, the process of naturalization can be daunting. Some are confused about how to apply. Some lack the required English proficiency. Some fear they will not pass the civics test, and some are daunted by the $680 application fee.
Rigbe Tesfaslase, 65, a resident of Washington, D.C., moved to the United States from the African nation of Eritrea 22 years ago and is eligible to become a citizen, which would allow her to sponsor her four children to move here. But she has applied before and was denied. “I didn’t understand the test; I need translation,” she said in halting English.
Amanda Sosa, 63, an undocumented Salvadoran cleaning woman who also lives in Washington, does not speak English and doubts she will ever be able to apply. But she sets a high value on the idea of citizenship.
“Many people say, ‘No, it’s OK to just be a legal resident,’ ” she said in Spanish as she cradled a friend’s infant at the Mary’s Center, an organization in D.C. that provides social services to low-income people. But to be a citizen, “psychologically, emotionally, it’s a triumph,” she said. “It’s like going to college and getting a degree.”
Applications for citizenship tend to spike around presidential elections — particularly the most recent one, in which the president garnered nearly three-quarters of the Latino vote, said Anna Anderson, manager of immigrant integration programs at CASA. “It’s a new energy,” she said. “They can see that there’s this power of their voices.”
Edwin Ramirez, 26, a Salvadoran construction worker who lives in D.C. with his wife and two children, said citizenship gives immigrants a heightened sense of civic-mindedness.
“Because you can help the country and the country can help you,” said Ramirez, who is a legal resident but has not had time to learn English to pursue citizenship. “Many people say: ‘We’re not from this country, we don’t have to keep it clean, we’re just surviving.’ People who have papers say, ‘No, we have to keep it clean, for a better tomorrow.’ “
Leticia, a 31-year-old Salvadoran cleaning woman, has lived in the U.S. since 2001 but has been unable to get a work permit and works for a company that does not offer benefits, vacations or sick days. The single mother of two did not want her last name printed because she is undocumented.
“I feel like an American. I don’t want to go back to my country,” she said in rapid English, adding that she dreams of studying to become a medical assistant. She would take the citizenship test tomorrow, she said, if she were eligible. “My aunt got her citizenship last year; I studied with her the questions.”
Cohen, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, finally got naturalized on Election Day last November. “It did feel like I was tying up an important loose end, familywise,” he said.
His daughter wore an infant bodysuit depicting the American flag for the occasion.