Urban Wire Cultural blind-spots make "pathway to citizenship" a steep climb
Molly M. Scott
Display Date

The “pathway to citizenship” is perhaps the most controversial issue in the immigration reform debate. Among other things, a bipartisan group of eight senators has proposed that undocumented immigrants, just to get in line for legal permanent residency, meet thresholds previously only required to naturalize: passing writing, reading, and oral English proficiency tests as well as a test on American civics.

At first glance, this seems fairly reasonable to most Americans. So how would most undocumented immigrants fare under this system? If studies of naturalization are any indication—not very well.

Studies have long found low naturalization rates among legal resident Mexicans, the group that also makes up the largest proportion of undocumented immigrants. Most recently, a report from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that only 36 percent of eligible Mexicans become citizens, despite their overwhelming interest in naturalization.

The report offers several reasons most Mexicans don’t become citizens, including language, financial, and administrative barriers. And yet, many Americans see these as excuses. Immigrants from Indonesia and Russia learn English and take the tests—why can’t Mexicans?

Much of the explanation is hidden in plain sight. Our English and civics requirements assume a level of access to universal public education that many Mexicans (and other immigrants from poor countries) simply have not enjoyed.

In the United States, only 11 percent of natives have less education than a high school diploma. Among Mexicans, that rate is 60 percent; and the truth is that “less than high school” often means much less. Years ago, when I briefly taught ESL in Southern California, only two of my students had spent more than six years in a classroom and several had no formal education at all. And this theme repeats itself often when I talk with immigrants for my work as a researcher.

Immigrants with such limited education have huge barriers to overcome. They work in the lowest-paid jobs—often several to cobble together enough income to get by. They have limited opportunities to interact with English speakers and great difficulty learning, even when they somehow find the time and resources to enroll in ESL or citizenship classes. Many extraordinary people manage to overcome these barriers and become citizens anyway, but they are too often the exception.

Without a doubt, just allowing undocumented immigrants to come forward, pass a background check, and live and work without fear would make a huge difference in their lives. But let’s not call it a “pathway to citizenship” if it doesn’t include substantial investment in not only ESL and citizenship classes, but also in adult basic education and literacy. It somehow seems disingenuous.

Research Areas Immigrants and immigration
Tags Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center