Prop 187 Isn't All That's Propelling Latinos to INS

(originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee, 5/22/95)

A year ago it was common to hear, "Latinos aren't interested in becoming U.S. citizens." This year, we're hearing that the wave of Latino immigrants packing into Immigration and Naturalization Service offices is due solely to Proposition 187. It is clear that the conventional wisdom of a year ago, which neglected the complexity of Latino immigrant reality, was incorrect. The conventional wisdom of today proves to be little better.

The INS is receiving 2,000-plus naturalization applications per day--in its Los Angeles office alone. But if Proposition 187 is the cause, why are major INS offices from Houston to Chicago to New York experiencing similar influxes? The answers are many.

One of the most important reasons is that of the 3 million undocumented immigrants who became legal permanent residents in the 1980s under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a vast majority became eligible for U.S. citizenship this year. A large number of the immigrants have been living in the United States since before 1982. That makes 13 years of residency in this country. How long does a typical Latino immigrant wait before seeking naturalization? You guessed it--13 to 15 years. INS has known about the potential wave of new applicants for the past five years. Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the administration adequately planned to meet it.

Another reason is the current INS policy of having legal permanent residents renew their green cards. Since it costs approximately the same to renew a green card as it does to apply for citizenship, many immigrants are considering whether they should remain legal permanent residents or seek citizenship.

To many immigrants, legal permanent residency (the legal status an immigrant enjoys before becoming an American citizen) doesn't seem to offer the legal protections U.S. citizenship is thought to probide. A 1994 California statewide poll revealed, for example, that 25 percent personally feared discrimination or violence. U.S. citizenship and an American passport are seen as security blankets against anti-immigrant bashing.

In a move that does seem to be closely linked to Proposition 187, GOP leaders in Congress are attempting to prohibit legal permanent residents from participating in 35 major social programs, from lead-based poisoning prevention programs to Medicaid. Legal permanent residents, many of whom have lived and paid taxes in the United States most of their lives, will be excluded from the governmental programs they helped pay for. Although barely noticed by the majority media, this provision has been receiving large play in Spanish-language media.

In the Southwest, another factor looms: The Mexican government has reconsidered its policy of restricting property ownership in certain areas to Mexican nationals only. To many immigrants who own small plots of farmland in the Mexican countryside, this shift removes the last reason to remain a noncitizen in the U.S.

Perhaps the least recognized reason so many Latino immigrants are now seeking U.S. citizenship is a growing recognition that naturalization is the missing ingredient to Latino empowerment strategies. Latino civic and community organizations have been working hard to educate the community about the obligations and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. Nearly a decade ago, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials began a public service campaign and a citizenship hotline promoting naturalization.

Other groups, from Catholic Charities, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, Los Angeles city schools and the California Community College system, have been encouraging and helping immigrants to become new Americans. Almost all Latino elected officials in Southern California have hosted naturalization workshops where immigrants receive assistance in filling out citizenship forms and being fingerprinted and photographed.

This year, all of these factors have come together. It's certainly true that some in California are applying in reaction to Proposition 187. But to assume Proposition 187 is the only reason would not only be foolish, but also could lead to even greater misunderstandings in the future.

For questions concerning the report, please contact researcher at: or call TRC at (909) 621-8897.

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