June 27, 2013

If they could, how many unauthorized immigrants would become U.S. citizens?

As Congress debates a comprehensive immigration bill, one key element under consideration is whether to offer a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants. If a bill were to pass including such a provision, how many would take advantage of the opportunity?

The answer is of course speculative. The Pew Hispanic Center has conducted surveys and analyses of government data that offer some insights – but not all of them point in the same direction.

A survey we conducted in 2012 found that more than nine-in-ten (93%) Hispanic immigrants who are not citizens said they would like to become a U.S. citizen. This was true both for those who are legal permanent residents (96%) and for those who aren’t (92%). The vast majority in the latter group is in the country illegally.

Despite this near universal expression of a desire for citizenship, our analysis of government data shows that a majority of Hispanic immigrants who are eligible to seek citizenship have not yet taken the opportunity to do so. Only 46% of Hispanic immigrants eligible to naturalize (become citizens) have, compared with 71% percent of all immigrants who are not Hispanic and are eligible to naturalize. The naturalization rate is particularly low among the largest group of Hispanic immigrants – Mexicans – among whom just 36% have naturalized.

Our 2012 survey also found that the reasons most often cited for not seeking citizenship were not speaking English (as required by a citizenship test), not being able to afford it (it costs $680 to apply for citizenship), and just not yet having gotten around to trying.

There is one more indicator, albeit an indirect one, of what might happen should comprehensive immigration reform offer a pathway to legal status.

Last year, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary relief from deportation to qualifying young adults ages 15 to 30 who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The program also provides a work permit to those who are awarded relief from deportation. The program does not provide a pathway to citizenship, but does offer temporary legal status – a feature likely to be a part of any comprehensive immigration bill.

This program is directed at a group of young immigrants, also known as DREAMers, who largely grew up in the U.S.

When the program was announced, we estimated that up to 950,000 young unauthorized immigrant adults were immediately eligible to apply for the new program. We also estimated that another 770,000 young unauthorized immigrants were potentially eligible in the future should their circumstances change.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began to accept applications for the deferred action program beginning August 15, 2012. Since then, the latest data (through May 31, 2013) shows that 520,000 young immigrants have submitted an application —more than half (55%) of all those estimated to be potentially eligible for the program. In addition, 51% of applications submitted to date were transmitted to the USCIS in the first two and a half months of the program, reaching a peak of 113,000 applications in October, 2012. Since then, the number of submissions has decreased to just above 20,000 in the latest month available. Among those who have applied, over three-fourths (76%) are of Mexican origin.

Meanwhile, the number granted temporary relief from deportation stands at 365,000 as of May 2013, with about 45,000 granted temporary relief per month since November 2012. Overall, 70% of all applications submitted to the program have been approved for temporary relief from deportation.

It remains to be seen whether immigration reform will pass in Congress. But the data indicate varying levels of interest among immigrants—including unauthorized immigrants— in pursuing U.S. citizenship, or at least in normalizing their status.

Topics: Immigration, Unauthorized Immigration, Citizenship

  1. Photo of Mark Hugo Lopez

    is director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Ana Gonzalez-Barrera

    is a senior researcher focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mark L3 years ago

    During the amnesty period in the 1980’s, my understanding is that most of the immigrants here illegally took advantage of the program to gain legal residency & to work legally, but only about half applied for US citizenship. The assumption was that while some immigrants wanted to make a new life for themselves & their family here in the US, those not seeking citizenship are here temporarily. They come here to earn a better wage than they could in their home country & send whatever they can save back to their family in their home county. Once they earn enough money, they return to their family where they use the earned cash to finish their goals, like build a home for their family or send children to better universities. So it is possible that there will be far fewer immigrants seeking citizenship.

    Cheers !

  2. Tamara Olivas4 years ago

    Do you think Hispanics that become legal residents or citizens will move back to their countries of origin?
    Do you think is a matter of not being able to travel freely that keeps illegal residents from going back home, as lots of them come looking for the “American Dream” which is in most cases the possibility to make some money to go back home and become entrepreneur.

    1. Mark Hugo Lopez4 years ago

      Hello Tamara,

      Certainly some Hispanic immigrants who become either legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens will move back to their home countries. Obtaining either status allows for easier travel. How many will do that, though, is hard to know.

      Our surveys have shown that many Hispanic immigrants come to the U.S. for economic opportunities among other reasons ( pewhispanic.org/2012/04/04/iii-t…).

      As for whether not being able to travel freely between their home countries and the U.S. is playing a factor, it might be. Among today’s unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. two-thirds have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years. And circumstances on the border have changed. For more, see our report on Mexican Migration from last year: pewhispanic.org/2012/04/23/ii-mi…

  3. Gringo Amigo4 years ago

    A freind of mine, a legal resident Mexican national delayed application for U.S. citizenship for several years because she believed that if she became a US citizen then she would lose her Mexican citizenship. When she learned this was no longer true, she applied and got U.S. Citizenship. Now she is a proud citizen of two countries.

    1. Rob Whitehead4 years ago

      Me too, only vice versa. It works both ways, only it’s much easier for a foreigner in Mexico than a foreigner in the USA.

    2. Jeff Costley4 years ago

      I ask myself the question of dual citizenship and possible implications. For example: how does allegiance work? When one becomes a U.S. citizen they swear an allegiance to the country. Hypothetically, if the U.S. declared a war against the native country of a dual citizen, to which country would they give their allegiance? I have posed this question to many dual citizens. Many responded saying their native country. And many also hesitated before saying their adopted country—U.S. Some replied this would never be the case and so I reiterated that the question is simply make believe. It is only a hypothetical question (the point here is denial of plausability causes pause).