Immigrants shift status: no longer sojourners

After skidding for 30 years, the rate at which immigrants are becoming US citizens is marching upward, one sign of a growing attachment and commitment by the foreign-born to American soil.

Regarded by many social scientists as a positive harbinger, this trend takes on even more significance as new census data show a surge among Hispanic and Asian populations and a significant rise in the portion of the US population that is foreign-born.

The rate at which newcomers become US citizens is influenced by a wide range of factors, including the passage of state and federal legislation that adversely affects nonvoting residents. Taking the oath generally benefits the individual - who can then vote - and society as a whole, say many analysts.

"It's an important barometer. What it reveals is the degree to which people coming here envision themselves as settlers rather than sojourners," says Peter Morrison, a southern California demographer and consultant to the Rand Corp.

During the 1990s, a settler's mentality is apparently gaining ground. The rate of naturalization nationally is now on a sustained upward path after declining since the 1960s, according to a new analysis from the Public Policy Institute (PPI) of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

Overall, the data look like this. From 1960 to 1993, the rate of naturalization for legal immigrants in the US sagged from 63 percent to 38 percent. Aside from an uptick in the 1960s, the decline was steady and uninterrupted.

But from 1993 to 1997, the latest year of data available for the research, the national rate has jumped, climbing 10 percentage points. In California, which takes in nearly one-third of the nation's immigrants each year, the rate at which newcomers became citizens jumped 8 percent from 1996 to 1997, an increase researchers called "remarkable." The national increase that year was 4 percent.

The research, according to its authors, is the first to clearly establish a sustained turnaround in the nation's naturalization rate.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service gets some credit for the upturn. The agency's concerted effort to clean up a hefty backlog of applications helped a lot of immigrants become citizens in the mid-1990s.

Yet there is more to this turnaround than just greater bureaucratic efficiency, says Hans Johnson, a demographer and the principal author of the PPI study.

Indeed, even as the backlog was being reduced, new applications for citizenship were surging. "There is clearly a behavioral change going on" among immigrants, says Mr. Johnson.

Political decisions, one favoring immigrants and others threatening them, could well be behind the application rush. The political decision that granted amnesty to a large number of immigrants, making them eligible for citizenship, was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The political actions that apparently spurred many others to seek citizenship were moves in Congress in 1996 to curtail social services to certain immigrants as a result of welfare reform, as well as passage in California of a ballot initiative chopping social services for illegal immigrants.

Many hypothesized during the mid-1990s that Hispanics would respond to the perceived political threat and become naturalized to protect their benefits by voting. The data suggest that's what happened.

The key question is whether the citizenship rate will continue to increase. Hispanic voting is already on the rise and being assiduously courted by both political parties in the run-up to the 2000 election. As immigrants perceive the growing payoff of citizenship, many political analysts say, the naturalization rate will continue to climb.

"My sense is I'd expect it to continue," says demographer Johnson. For one thing, he points out, there is a snowball effect as citizenship becomes more common within immigrant social networks. Citizens become models and also provide ready sources of basic information for fellow immigrants about how to become naturalized, often an intimidating process for newcomers.

In addition, naturalization and political participation become self-reinforcing as immigrants make electoral gains. In California, Hispanics are clearly changing the complexion of the power structure in the state capital.

Ameliorating somewhat against a continued rise in naturalization are the characteristics of the immigrants themselves. The longer an immigrant resides in the US, the more likely he or she is to become naturalized.

Other factors could propel the rate. Based on past performance, Asians are more likely to become naturalized than Hispanics and, according to recent census data, the Asian population as a whole has grown by 40 percent since 1990. Hispanic growth, from a larger base, expanded a smaller 35 percent since 1990. Growth rates are a mix of immigration and births.

The immigrant population itself is growing. A census report issued last week shows the share of the US population that is foreign-born is now 9.3 percent, about double the share that was born abroad in 1970.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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