Barriers Keep Latino Legal Residents From Obtaining Citizenship

Latino voters are one of the fastest growing segments of the electorate and a key constituency in building a strategy to win the White House. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2013, there were around 54 million Latinos living in the United States making people of Hispanic or Latino origin the nation’s largest ethnic minority. Research by the Pew Research Center reveals that as of 2014, 25.2 million Latinos were eligible to vote, accounting for 11% of all eligible voters nationwide. Despite this significant political presence, growth gaps in Latino voters are still persistent in many states. Historically, one of the primary reasons that full political participation by Latinos has been restricted, is the lack of access to the electoral process.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimated that in 2012, 13.3 million legal residents lived in the United States and 8.8 million of those qualified for naturalization. Studies from the Pew Research Center found that among all Latinos who are in the country legally, just 47% of them have opted to become U.S. citizens. The rest stay on as legal permanent residents, a status that protects them from the threat of deportation, allows them to work, pay taxes and travel abroad for a limited amount of time. Lawful permanent residents however, lack access to certain benefits afforded a U.S. citizen: they cannot make their home in a foreign country or remain outside the United States for extended periods of time (except in specific circumstances), and they are ineligible for many civil service jobs as well as certain forms of government assistance. More importantly, legal permanent residents can be deported for violating any of a wide variety of laws.

In addition to protecting them from deportation, citizenship grants immigrants the right to vote which would give them the ability to raise their political voice and have a say on laws that affect their economic and social stability. It is no wonder then, that according to a nationwide survey by Pew Research Center, 93% of Latino legal residents that qualify for naturalization say they would naturalize if they could. However, due to numerous personal, administrative and financial barriers they have not been able to go through the process of obtaining citizenship. Only 30% of Latino legal residents surveyed say they speak English well or pretty well which is why 26% of those identified English proficiency and the citizenship test as the main barrier that keeps them from naturalizing. Around 18% of them also identified administrative barriers such as the financial cost of naturalization.

The broken immigration system and the lengthy naturalization process for legal residents have created a segmented society where millions are excluded from achieving an equal political status with full protection under the law. Thus, many immigrants are left in a separate and unequal legal status that inhibits them from completely contributing to our society. The road to a fully democratic country built on justice and equality for all rests on giving a political voice to immigrants.

Estimates by the Department of Homeland Security show that New York is the state with the second highest number of legal permanent residents, with approximately 1.65 million living in the state.

Giving immigrants access to accurate information and resources is essential in helping them become active political participants in our country.

Ana Guillcatanda is a Dreamer and activist for immigration reform and workers rights. She is currently a law student and Community Director with the Liberal Party of New York.