In an apparently coordinated fashion just before July 4, several conservative journals and a conservative columnist published commentaries critical of the way the naturalization process is conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Naturalization, the process by which a legal immigrant becomes a full-fledged citizen of this country, has been the mechanism for politically incorporating the many waves of immigrants who have entered the nation over the past two hundred years. This year naturalization is at all-time high levels with more than 1 million immigrants expecting to become new Americans. Since 10 million legal permanent residents in this nation are yet not U.S. citizens, we can expect naturalization demands to continue at present levels for years to come.
The sudden attack on naturalization from the right may presage the opening of a larger campaign making naturalization more difficult to achieve. If the opening salvos are indicative of the future, we can envision the broad outlines of this campaign. First critics will assert that, somehow, naturalization in the 1990s has lessened in significance compared to the days when becoming an American "really meant something." Analysts will question immigrants' motives in seeking citizenship. Next, they'll resort to anecdotes of one immigrant laughing or bewildered at a naturalization ceremony while ignoring the thousands moved by the emotion of pledging allegiance to their new homeland. Finally they'll accuse organizations promoting naturalization of ethnic political machinations and utter dark forecasts of a "foreign vote" and its implications. Once this type of rhetoric enters the mainstream, and given the mood of the present Congress, the logical policy outcome is straightforward: increase the hurdles an immigrant has to jump before becoming an American citizen.
Has the significance of naturalization lessened in the 1990s? From a historical perspective it's hard to give credibility to that assertion. After all, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants were naturalized around the turn of the century by big city political machines. Does anyone seriously think that political organizations like Tammany Hall would have bothered to have naturalization applicants (as the INS now requires) fill out four-page application forms, be fingerprinted, have their files checked by the FBI and then, after a wait of six months to a year, have civil servants examine them for basic literacy and their knowledge of U.S. history and civics? On the contrary.
The current naturalization process is basically a depoliticized bureaucratic procedure run by INS personnel who have been overworked and overwhelmed for the greater part of the past decade. In fact, the naturalization process has been so bureaucratic that until recently it left many immigrants unnecessarily bewildered and often discouraged. Through the 1980s it was common to hear complaints about the arbitrary nature of the naturalization exam, the confusing forms to fill out and the interminable wait to be called for the swearing-in ceremony. To its credit, the INS has, in both the Bush and Clinton Administrations, attempted to make naturalization less of a mystery. For examples, forms have been simplified, the examination process is being standardized and community-based organizations have been encouraged to assist the INS in promoting the values of American citizenship.
At first, it seems incredible that the political right is attacking this wholly American institution. But upon reflection, the attack should come as no surprise. After all, certain segments of the right wing, as well as certain mainstream politicians, have enjoyed tremendous success with immigrant bashing, which has played well with a surprising number of Americans. Most immigrants fully realize the scapegoating nature of the vitriol. As permanent residents, they can do little or nothing about it. As U.S. citizens, however, it will be a different story. Beginning this November and continuing into the foreseeable future, it will be payback time in the voting booths. The pundits who are sounding the alarm bell and the politicos who have jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon may indeed have cause to worry.
Harry P. Pachon teaches at Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate School and is coauthor of "New Americans by Choice," a book on Latino immigrant attitudes towards U.S. citizenship. He is also president of the TomĘs Rivera Center, a national public policy research institute in Claremont.