The Wall Street Journal reports:
The move to overhaul the nation's immigration system has stirred controversy in part over the issue of offering citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
But judging by the last time the U.S. opened such a path for illegal immigrants then in the country, many fewer than 11 million likely would become citizens. After the 1986 immigration overhaul, fewer than half of those eligible became naturalized.
A key reason: the government's requirements for would-be citizens. The immigrants must shell out at least $680, pass an oral exam, present five years' worth of tax returns and submit to a background check for things such as criminal convictions.
"People think it's automatic, short and easy," said Dan Siciliano, a Stanford Law School professor who studies immigration. In reality, he said, "the pathway to citizenship is onerous."
A bipartisan Senate proposal supports a path to citizenship; some House Republicans have taken a skeptical position.
Under the 1986 move to open the way for illegal immigrants to eventually become citizens, only 40% of the 2.7 million immigrants who received a green card, or permanent legal residency, had become naturalized citizens by 2009, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Homeland Security.The Pew Research Hispanic Center reports:
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.
Creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally is expected to be one of the most contentious elements of the immigration legislation that will be considered by Congress this year. 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.
A nationwide survey of Hispanic immigrants by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that more than nine-in-ten (93%) who have not yet naturalized say they would if they could. Asked in an open-ended question why they hadn’t naturalized, 26% identified personal barriers such as a lack of English proficiency, and an additional 18% identified administrative barriers, such as the financial cost of naturalization. The survey also revealed that among Hispanic legal permanent residents, just 30% say they speak English “very well” or “pretty well.”