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America needs citizens, not more permanent residents

Photo by Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

A new study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center reveals some unsettling facts about Mexican immigration and the long-treasured path to citizenship:

“Nearly two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have not yet taken that step. Their rate of naturalization—36%—is only half that of legal immigrants from all other countries combined, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

… Mexican immigrants are by far the largest group of immigrants who are in the country illegally—accounting for 6.1 million (55%) of the estimated 11.1 million in the U.S. as of 2011.

Mexicans are also the largest group of legal permanent residents—accounting for 3.9 million out of 12 million. The Center’s analysis of current naturalization rates among Mexican legal immigrants suggests that creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally does not mean all would pursue that option. Many could choose an intermediate status—legal permanent resident—that would remove the threat of deportation, enable them to work legally and require them to pay taxes, but not afford them the full rights of U.S. citizenship, including the right to vote.”

Jacquellena Carrero at NBC Latino tells the story of one such permanent resident:

“Emigzio Montiel, 56, has been in the United States for 25 years and he has never applied for citizenship. Montiel, originally from Pachuca, Mexico, has been a resident of California since 1996. ‘I don’t know the laws very well, and I would like to learn the language [English] and since I can travel back and forth Mexico, it’s [not] a priority to get citizenship, but maybe in the future I will,’ says Montiel.”

A full 93 percent of the Latinos surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center who were eligible for citizenship said they would naturalize if they were able to. They cited a lack of English proficiency and the cost of applying as two major obstacles.

The cost bit I can understand. Six hundred and eighty dollars is a large sum for a person living check to check, especially during such lean times.

But the language barrier — which was the most popular reason keeping permanent residents from naturalizing — is complete nonsense. My own grandmother became a citizen in the 1980s, and yet she speaks badly broken English to this day. And my wife’s grandmother became a citizen just last summer, though I’ve never heard her utter a single English word.

Of course, immigrants have the right to remain permanent residents and deny themselves the right to vote. But I can’t for the life of me think of one reason why someone would think that’s an acceptable idea.

Who would choose to live in a society where they didn’t have the power to influence the people who write the laws? Who doesn’t want the power of picking the president? (There’s only one other group of PRs denied such rights, but I digress.)

America’s home to 5.8 million Latino green card holders who are eligible for citizenship right this very moment. Considering Latinos vote at a rate of 53 percent, the country is missing out on 3.1 million additional votes every two years. (A record 12.5 million Latinos voted in 2012, and Pres. Obama’s margin of victory was only 2.8 million.)

Simply put, when merely 36 percent of Mexican immigrants are becoming citizens, the political strength of the Mexican community in the United States is sacrificed — and the entire Latino community along with it.

We have to teach every permanent resident, Mexican or not, Latino or whatever, that American citizenship is a priceless possession for the person who possesses it. The goal of every immigrant shouldn’t be simply to avoid deportation, but to thrive and take ownership of society, economically and politically.

Because, in the end, what will America become when it no longer has a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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