Immigrants to Citizens: A Role for State Legislators

by Ann Morse and Aida Orgocka

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Executive Summary

At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States is revisiting a challenge from the dawn of the 20th century - how to welcome, integrate, and make citizens of large numbers of new immigrants.  Approximately one million immigrants are arriving each year and resettling in a broad array of new communities in addition to the traditional gateway cities of New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. As we did a century ago, when 8.9 million immigrants arrived during the last peak of immigration, Americans are wondering if the nation can make new Americans of these newcomers.  Then, the nation launched an “Americanization” movement, involving federal, state and municipal governments, businesses, labor unions, schools and social organizations, to teach newcomers English and American values.  Today, however, few similar programs exist at the federal or state level, and some public leaders are suggesting a renewed focus on helping new immigrants understand their rights and responsibilities in U.S. civil society. 

In its final report to Congress in 1997, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform defined naturalization as “the most visible manifestation of civic incorporation as well as a crucial component of the Americanization process.”  The Commission urged federal, state, and local governments to do more to help immigrants integrate into U.S. society, by “developing capacities to orient both newcomers and receiving communities; educating newcomers in both English language skills and our core civic values; and revisiting the meaning and conferral of citizenship to ensure the integrity of the naturalization process.” 

One in nine U.S. residents today is foreign-born.  According to the 2000 census, 40 percent of the nation’s 32 million foreign-born residents have become naturalized U.S. citizens.  The Urban Institute estimates another 8 million legal immigrants are eligible to naturalize.  Naturalization rates have also increased dramatically, exceeding 300,000 nearly every year since 1990. 

State legislators have encouraged immigrants to naturalize, to become registered voters, and in general, to become active citizens in our democratic system.  In the late 1990s, about a dozen states launched state-funded citizenship assistance programs.  In addition, interested policymakers and community organizations crafted partnerships to encourage a range of civic engagement activities beyond naturalization and voter registration, to voter education and candidate forums, to visiting state legislatures and becoming active in local town hall meetings, to identifying new citizens to serve on civic committees and state-local commissions.  Many immigrants have even made the leap from new citizen to elected representative. 

This report provides a brief introduction to how immigrants become U.S. citizens, and beyond the naturalization process, how they become “American” and active participants in civil society. A state-by-state chart of naturalized and the eligible-to-naturalize population is included in the report. The paper revisits examples of government efforts to encourage naturalization and adaptation during the Americanization movement of the early 20th century and provides examples of today’s programs.    

This publication was made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Last updated October 25, 2005