We want legal permanent residents (LPRs) to become U.S. citizens and fully participate in civic life—and research shows they are, in fact, doing just that. DHS recently presented new data on two programs for legal permanent residence (LPR) status—one that required immigrants to learn English and U.S. history, and one that did not. They found that those who were required to learn English and history (which are also requirements for U.S. citizenship) are naturalizing at higher rates.

The DHS fact sheet shows that 2.7 million immigrants obtained LPR status between 1989 and 1991 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)—1.6 million who arrived prior to 1982 (pre-1982 immigrants), and 1.1 million who legalized under a special agricultural workers (SAW) program. To legalize, both groups had to meet residency requirements, but the pre-1982 IRCA group had to meet certain standards for English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics whereas the SAW workers did not. By the end of 2009, DHS found that more pre-1982 IRCA immigrants (53%) naturalized than SAW immigrants (34%)—which is to be expected considering the difference in requirements.

However, by 2009, the overall naturalization rate of both IRCA immigrant groups (pre-1982 and SAW) was lower than other immigrant (Control) groups who obtained LPR status in a way other than IRCA during the same period. Why? Because the vast majority of those legalized under IRCA were from Mexico, and naturalization rates for those born in Mexico have historically been very low. However, drilling further down, DHS actually found higher naturalization rates among IRCA legalized Mexicans than other Mexicans. Again, pre-legalization assimilation requirements help to explain the higher naturalization rates:

The differences between the naturalization rates of Pre-82s, SAWs, and other immigrants, when controlling for Mexican origin, are consistent with expectations regarding assimilation. Pre-1982s were required to meet certain conditions associated with assimilation prior to obtaining LPR status and had higher rates of naturalization than other immigrants who were not subject to those conditions. Non-Mexican-born SAWs were not required to meet those conditions and naturalized at about the same rate as other immigrants. Mexican-born SAWs had a lower naturalization rate than other immigrants, but the group may have included a substantial number of persons who used the program for employment or travel rather than for permanent residence.

So what does this teach us as we think about comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization program? One piece of a successful legalization program must be to help legalized immigrants integrate as quickly as possible and meet specified criteria. The criteria can be about commitment to the U.S.—paying taxes, learning English, working hard or going to school, staying out of trouble. If they successfully meet those criteria, the result is legal status that can eventually lead to citizenship. Without the promise of a green card, legalization is nothing more than an expanded temporary worker program, running the risk of creating a second-class citizen with the right to work, but with no incentives to put down roots, become U.S. citizens, and fully integrate.

Photo by Shane Global Language Centres.