Dual Allegiances Move Closer to Home

Nationality and citizenship go their separate ways under new policy in Mexico.

It has nothing to do with the usual hot-button issues of free trade, drugs, or illegal immigration. But US-Mexico relations have been quietly transformed over the past few weeks.

A group of Mexican-Americans waiting anxiously outside the door of the consulate general of Mexico here tells the story. They're in line to apply for restoration of their Mexican nationality, granted as part of a historic policy implemented in late March that allows them to be US citizens and Mexican nationals at the same time.

For Maria de la Luz, it was a no-brainer. She became a US citizen two years ago, but continued to divide her time between Oakland, Calif., and her family home in Mascota, Jalisco. With dual nationality, she says she can "stop being afraid" of losing her property in Mexico.

Mexico's acceptance of dual nationality - which grants broad property and investment rights in Mexico, but stops short of voting privileges - echoes a pattern around the globe. Countries from South America to North Africa are dropping the notion that nationality and citizenship must be the exclusive domain of one state.

Yet within the United States, no dual-nationality policy promises the degree of impact as Mexico's does. That's one reason support and criticism of it are already intense.

Supporters see Mexico's dual-nationality policy as a natural complement to free trade and the growing globalization of markets and blurring of national boundaries. Critics worry about divided loyalties and the general erosion of clear-cut allegiance to a single state or political system.

The popularity of the new policy among Mexican-born immigrants is evident. De la Luz's application joins more than 100 filed here over the past three weeks. At the consulate in Los Angeles, they're receiving 100 applications each day.

"What you're creating for the future is a transnational region," says Adolfo Aguilar-Zinser, an independent member of the Mexican Senate and a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies. A supporter of the new amendment to the Mexican Constitution, though he favored including the right to vote, Mr. Aguilar-Zinser says this new policy adds some legal and political integration to the cultural blending already evident in the border regions of the US and Mexico.

THE dual-nationality policy is expected to principally affect two groups. First, the 1 million or so Mexican-American adults who have become US citizens and now qualify for dual nationality. Second, the 2 million to 3 million Mexican immigrants who qualify for US citizenship but haven't taken that step, in some cases, perhaps, for fear of losing their rights in their native Mexico.

The implications of the latter are potentially profound. Citizenship applications by Mexicans have soared in the past few years, prompted by fear of losing benefits in the US as a result of federal welfare reform and a California initiative passed in 1994, subsequently gutted by the courts. Citizenship was seen as a means of protection against anti-immigrant sentiment and policy.

No one expects dual nationality to be anywhere near as powerful an incentive for seeking US citizenship as the fear of losing benefits. But it will act as one more incentive to an already expanding pool of potential Mexican-American voters.

Michael Jones-Correa, a Harvard University professor of government, says research he did on Latin American immigrants in New York in the early 1990s found that fear of losing rights in the country of birth was often cited as a hindrance to seeking US citizenship.

In response to increased threats to immigrant benefits in the US, the Mexican government has been overt in encouraging Mexican-Americans to exercise their political rights. Mexico's acceptance of dual nationality strikes many analysts as a logical extension of that.

The Mexican government "clearly believes this group will help them potentially down the road by voting in the US in ways that are beneficial to Mexico," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. Dual nationality or citizenship has been permitted in countries like Britain, Italy, and Canada, for years. But its recent spread throughout Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia has heightened criticism. Though the policies of foreign countries are beyond the control of the American government, some believe the US could take countersteps in its citizenship process to more strongly disallow or discourage the phenomenon.

"It's deeply troubling to us. You can't have dual nationality any more than you can have more than one wife," says K.C. McAlpin, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which opposes immigration on its current scale. "This sort of thing weakens the bonds that bind us together as a pluralistic nation," says McAlpin.

Noah Pincus of Duke University is a staunch supporter of immigration, but says dual nationality and citizenship are on the verge of erupting in the political arena and could produce a further backlash against immigration. Policies that grant voting rights in another land to US citizens worry him greatly, and while Mexico's dual nationality doesn't go that far, he says it could become the "slippery slope" to that end. "Are you fostering a sense of multiple loyalties? We don't want to eradicate [those loyalties], necessarily. But neither do we want to encourage them," he adds.

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