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Press Release · September 14, 1999

Naturalization Rates Surged In Mid 1990s, Study Finds

California Saw Largest Increase, Political Climate Possible Cause

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 14, 1999 – After decades of decline, the rate of naturalization among the nation’s immigrants rose sharply in the mid-1990s, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California. And nowhere was the increase more dramatic than in California, home to nearly one-third of the adult immigrant population in the United States.

The study’s authors, Hans Johnson, Belinda Reyes, Laura Mameesh, and Elisa Barbour, examined naturalization trends from 1960 to 1997. They found that the naturalization rate for all legal immigrants in the United States declined steadily from 1965 to 1993, falling from 63 percent to 38 percent. However, in the mid-1990s, naturalization rates turned around, increasing substantially for three groups of immigrants in particular: immigrants in California, Latino immigrants, and better educated immigrants. In fact, naturalization rates in California jumped 8 percent between March 1996 and March 1997, meaning that the number of naturalized citizens in the state grew by 24 percent – or almost 500,000 people – in one year.

“This one-year increase in naturalization rates is remarkable,” said Reyes, an economist and PPIC research fellow. “While much of this is the result of INS efforts to clear up a large backlog of applications through its ‘Citizenship U.S.A.’ program, these efforts do not explain the record numbers of people applying for citizenship during this time. Clearly, something happened in the mid-90s that made immigrants want to become citizens more than in the past.”

The study finds that in addition to the Citizenship U.S.A. program (launched in 1995), two other factors probably account for the large increase in naturalization rates in the 1990s. First, the population eligible for naturalization increased greatly as formerly undocumented immigrants were granted amnesty (legal permanent residency) under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) – those granted amnesty became eligible for naturalization starting in 1993.

Second, political events in the 1990s may have led to increases in naturalization, especially in California. Proposition 187 was passed in California in 1994 in an attempt to curtail social services to undocumented immigrants, and in 1995-96, the nation was debating the virtues of restricting welfare benefits for legal immigrants. Many observers have suggested that a perceived anti-immigrant sentiment motivated immigrants to naturalize as a way to protect their rights and participate in the political process.

“Our results show some support for the assertion that the charged political climate of the mid-90s contributed to increased naturalization,” said demographer Johnson, also a research fellow at PPIC. “This is especially true among immigrants in California and Latino immigrants – who are traditionally less likely to naturalize – and among better educated immigrants.”

Despite recent increases, California still has one of the lowest rates of naturalization in the nation, ranking 49th out of the 50 states. With the notable exception of Texas, over 50 percent of the immigrant populations in other high-immigration states (New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois) have naturalized, compared to 43 percent in California.

A central reason for California’s low rate of naturalization is the state’s large population of undocumented immigrants. Legal immigrants make up the vast majority of the state’s immigrant population, but California is home to over 40 percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrants, whose status makes them ineligible for citizenship. In addition, legal immigrants in California have characteristics that are associated with low naturalizations rates: they are more likely to come from Mexico, to be recent arrivals, to be married to noncitizens, to have lower levels of education, and to be less proficient in English.

The authors point out that naturalization is a critical issue in California. While California has the largest number of legal immigrants in the nation, most of them have not naturalized. This means that a substantial number of the state’s residents are unable to participate in political decisionmaking, which increasingly occurs at the ballot box through the initiative process. In addition, welfare legislation passed in 1996 prohibits new legal immigrants from receiving most federally funded social services until after naturalization or ten years of employment in the United States. This could eventually affect county programs such as general assistance, because counties will become the providers of last resort for immigrants no longer eligible for federally funded programs.

“Most California counties engaged in some effort to naturalize their immigrant populations after welfare reform, and the state has kicked in some resources,” Reyes concluded. “Clearly, we have made some important strides. However, given the potential social and economic costs, greater efforts should be made to encourage California’s hard-to-reach immigrant populations to naturalize.”

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.