March 28, 2007

Growing Share of Immigrants Choosing Naturalization

V. Characteristics of Naturalized and Eligible Populations

Country and Region

Among those eligible to naturalize, Mexicans constitute 3.0 million of the 8.5 million total, more than any one country or region. Because of their large representation among legal immigrants and their low naturalization rates, Mexicans also dominated this group in 1995. The next largest groups are immigrants from Asia and from Central American/Caribbean countries, each totaling 1.6 million (see Appendix Table 3).

Mexicans are 35% of those eligible to naturalize, but they constitute only 13% of naturalized citizens. On the other hand, Asian immigrants make up 32% of naturalized citizens but only 19% of those who are eligible. The shares of citizens and eligible immigrants for most other groups are more evenly matched.

Among those soon to be eligible to become citizens, the distribution by country and region generally is similar to that of the eligible population. Again, Mexico is an exception: Mexicans make up 23% of those who soon will be eligible, a lower share than among the currently eligible population. The low Mexican naturalization rate means they make up a disproportionately high share of eligible non-citizens.

Race and Ethnicity

The racial and ethnic makeup of the adult naturalized population echoes its geographic origins. Hispanics make up 27% of naturalized citizens, but more than half (54%) of the eligible population and 42% of those who will soon be eligible. Asians and Pacific Islanders are 32% of the naturalized population, 19% of the eligible group and 25% of those soon to be eligible. Non-Hispanic whites are 31% of the naturalized population, and only a fifth of those who are eligible and soon to be eligible. Non-Hispanic black immigrants represent less than 10% of the naturalized and eligible groups and 11% of those soon to be eligible.

English Language Skills

Regardless of where they come from, adult immigrants are more likely to become citizens if they speak English well. According to 2000 Census data, 52% of eligible immigrants with limited English proficiency had naturalized.2 By contrast, 67% who said they were proficient at English had become citizens.

Among the naturalized population, those with limited English proficiency are a minority—less than 40%. But among Mexican-born U.S. citizens, 58% do not speak English well. Among immigrants who are eligible to naturalize or who soon will be, most have limited English skills.

Education

Education also raises the likelihood that an immigrant will become a citizen. Of eligible immigrants ages 25–64 with a college education, most have become citizens. Most migrants in that age group who did not complete high school have not naturalized.

Among naturalized citizens, 37% hold at least a college degree, and 15% have not graduated from high school. The next group of potential new citizens is less welleducated: Among those eligible, the comparable figures are 22% and 38%, reflecting the disproportionately high share of Mexican-born immigrants. Among those soon to be eligible, 35% hold a college degree and 27% have not graduated from high school.

Mexicans are far less likely than immigrants from other countries to hold college degrees or to have completed high school. More than 60% of Mexican immigrants who are eligible for citizenship or soon will be have not completed high school, compared with less than 40% of all other legal permanent residents.

Gender and Employment

Among naturalized citizens, 53% are female. Females also are a slight majority among those eligible and soon to be.

Male and female immigrants are equally likely to become citizens, but the likelihood rises perceptibly for female immigrants who are in the labor force. There is no such difference for males. (Nearly all working-age male immigrants— 90%—are in the labor force, compared with 62% of females.) Of eligible females in the labor force, 63% are naturalized citizens, compared with 48% of those not in the labor force. Working women are more likely to speak English and hold a college degree than those who do not hold paid employment. Those factors also increase the likelihood of becoming a citizen but do not explain all of the difference.

Income and Poverty

Immigrants with low incomes are less likely to become citizens than those with higher ones. Among naturalized Americans, 14% have family incomes below the poverty line and 35% have high incomes (at least four times the poverty level). Among those eligible to naturalize, a quarter (24%) are poor and 22% have high family incomes. Among those soon to be eligible, 30% are poor and 18% have high incomes.

Another way to compare the naturalized and eligible populations is to look at those with low incomes, defined as up to double the poverty level. Low-income immigrants make up a minority of those who have recently naturalized (38%). They are 52% of the population that is currently eligible to naturalize and 58% of those who will soon be eligible.

  1. Data on English language proficiency is from the decennial census of 2000. The Current Population Survey does not ask about English proficiency.