WASHINGTON - Only 36 percent of Mexican immigrants who are eligible to become U.S. citizens are taking steps to do so, a much lower rate than immigrants from other countries, according to a new study.
The Pew Hispanic Center report said language, financial and administrative barriers are among the main reasons for legal residents not seeking citizenship.
"Financial is the number one reason that I see," said Victor Nieblas, second vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"People don't come here and tell me, 'I can't speak English, I don't want to apply.' The first thing they say is, 'It's too expensive and it's burdensome,'" he said.
It comes as lawmakers say they are nearing agreement on a comprehensive immigration reform package that is likely to include not only fees but fines and back taxes for immigrants who may be here illegally before they can become eligible for legal permanent residence.
The report said Mexican immigrants account for 6.1 million of the estimated 11.1 million people who immigrated illegally to this country. Mexicans also make up the largest group of legal permanent residents in the United States, accounting for 3.9 million of the 12 million people.
But the report said Mexicans pursue citizenship at slightly more than half the rate of all immigrants who are here legally, which is about 68 percent.
Nieblas said many immigrants keep the thought of returning to their homelands in the back of their minds. Mexicans might hold onto that hope longer, delaying their naturalization, because of Mexico's proximity to the United States, he said.
"Once they realize that 'I have children here, I have a life here, I'm not going back,' that's when they start becoming more serious about the naturalization process," Nieblas said.
He said financial and administrative hurdles to naturalization are not unique to Mexicans, but affect most immigrants regardless of homeland.
That is especially true since the application fee has gone up. Nieblas remembers when it cost a couple of hundred dollars to apply for citizenship; now there is a 10-page application and a $680 fee.
The report also said language and personal barriers were cited as major reasons why Latino legal permanent residents have not naturalized.
Regina Jefferies, head of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said many immigrants she works with are worried about not speaking English well enough. In reality they speak English just fine, they just are not confident, she said.
"Sometimes people don't feel they have the language skills, but when you actually talk to them they do in most cases," she said.
The primary reason Jefferies sees for legal residents not applying is financial and not wanting to have to struggle with the application. The people she works with sometimes do not have the time to deal with the complex application.
And with the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform on the horizon, Jefferies is worried the system may become more complicated.
"It's just going to add additional layers and layers of complexity to an already byzantine system," she said. "It doesn't make sense to have a system that is that complicated."
Nieblas said it is hard to speculate on how reform might affect the current process because of secrecy of the negotiations, which he compared to the selection of the pope.
"It seems as though they're in a conclave or something and we're waiting for white smoke," Nieblas said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the eight senators working on an immigration reform package could come to an agreement next week.
But while broad outlines have been discussed, few details have been released.
Whatever the final form of the bill, Nieblas said it should try to lower naturalization fees and streamline the application.
The Pew report said 93 percent of Latinos would naturalize if they could.
"The fees are holding a lot of people back, the economy is holding a lot of people back and if they were to lower those fees I think they would see a big change in the interest," Nieblas said.
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The main reasons Latino permanent residents in the United States said they have not taken steps toward naturalization, according to a recent Pew Center report:
• 26% - Language and other personal barriers.
• 26% - Have not tried yet or not interested.
• 18% - Financial and administrative barriers.
• 13% - Not eligible yet or waiting for green card.
• 4% - Currently applying or will do it soon.