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Why Not Naturalize? Students Ask and Immigrants’ Answers Give Professor Core of New Article

Only 40 percent of foreign-born residents of the United States are U.S. citizens and only 60 percent will ever naturalize in the course of their lifetime. Why do so many eligible immigrants hold onto their green card status for decades when the advantages of citizenship are available to them?

Bridgit Cusato-Rosa
Bridgit Cusato-Rosa ’11

Ray A. Mateo ’09 and Bridgit Cusato-Rosa ’11 were students in Professor Alan Hyde’s Immigration Policy Seminar when they independently decided to augment the limited extant research on the nation’s low naturalization rate by interviewing Dominicans living in New York and New Jersey. Latino communities tend to be low naturalizers and Dominican-born residents have historically been especially unlikely to become U.S. citizens, although their rate is now close to that of other immigrant groups.

“Asking people their reasons for not naturalizing had not been done before,” says Hyde, Distinguished Professor and Sidney Reitman Scholar at Rutgers School of Law–Newark. “When I introduced the topic of low naturalization in the seminar, my intent was to stress the unfriendliness of U.S. procedures. It was Ray and Bridgit’s papers that pushed this study into the realm of identity, and psychological and emotional reasons for not naturalizing.”

Mateo and Cusato-Rosa are credited as co-authors of Hyde’s article, “Why don’t they naturalize: Voices from the Dominican community?” published this fall in Latino Studies (Lat. Stud. 11: 313-340). The study was cited in the New York Times front-page article “Making Choice to Halt at Door of Citizenship” (8/25/13).  

While there is extensive research on the assimilation of immigrants in the United States, very little attention has been paid to the large percentage of foreign-born residents who do not naturalize. As the authors note, the U.S. rate of naturalization is much lower than that of Canada and Australia, two culturally similar countries with even higher percentages of foreign-born residents. In Canada, 85 percent of immigrants with at least 10 years of residency naturalize, while in Australia the comparable statistic is 80 percent. 

We live in a country where millions of undocumented immigrants make our social and economic future, yet we have not been able to provide a path towards legalization —Mateo

“Ultimately, only around 60 per cent of all immigrants to the United States will naturalize at some point in their lives,” the article reports. The rate for U.S. residents born in Latin America is 32 percent. According to the 2000 Census, the rate for Dominicans is just 18 percent, although more recent estimates put that figure much higher. 

Mateo and Cusato-Rosa determined that interviews with Dominican-born residents of New York and New Jersey – where the majority of Dominicans in the U.S. live – would help them learn more about individual decisions. “Professor Hyde’s course touched upon risk/benefit analysis, economic factors, and ties to their homeland,” Mateo explains. “I wanted to take it a step further and focus on the reasoning, not based on numbers but on the psychology and emotional aspect of it.”

Cusato-Rosa had a specific reason for studying why so many Dominicans choose not to pursue citizenship – at the time of the Immigration Policy Seminar her husband was going through the naturalization process. A Drew University graduate with a B.A. in sociology and minors in Spanish and Latin American studies, she decided to pursue a J.D. “to help fix public education and to assist those who face harsh immigration rules” in this country. Personally affected by both through her work – she was a middle-school teacher in Newark for 11 years – and family, she understood that a law degree would give her the tools to become “a greater servant to these communities.” 

I would love to see the process become something that creates pride in immigrants —Cusato-Rosa

Mateo, raised by immigrant parents in the predominantly Dominican, Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, has long had a passion for immigration law. At Binghamton University SUNY he majored in philosophy, politics and law and minored in international studies. 

“We live in a country where millions of undocumented immigrants make our social and economic future,” he says, “yet we have not been able to provide a path towards legalization. I often wondered as a child, why is it so hard to get a piece of paper that states you belong in this nation, especially when you’ve lived in this country for such a long time?” 

The co-authors of “Why don’t they naturalize: Voices from the Dominican community?” conducted 34 interviews with four individuals who have naturalized and 30 who have not. They found that the most common initial response to being asked why he/she has not naturalized was some variant of “I just don’t see the benefit; it costs too much.” In short order, however, most subjects expressed some anxiety over identity and ambivalence about “feeling American.”

Mateo came away from the research project “surprised by the staggering number of people with permanent residency who have not taken the opportunity to naturalize. Naturalization secures your stay in the U.S. and strengthens your ties to this county,” he observes, “yet many of my interviews found that naturalizing was either too hard or did not benefit them in any way.”

Mateo also realized that his own grandmother had never naturalized, despite having been a permanent U.S. resident for more than 20 years. He sees her experience as a good example of the apprehension and confusion of many immigrants. “The naturalization and writing exam was intimidating and horrifying for a 73-year-old woman with a fifth-grade level of education.” He took it upon himself to teach his grandmother about the process and assist her in completing the application. “Because of Professor Hyde’s class and research project, today my grandmother is a U.S. citizen.”

Rutgers–Newark is the best law school in the country to teach immigration law. Here immigration is not an interesting problem in constitutional or administrative law. It’s our students’ lives. —Hyde

Cusato-Rosa was disappointed but not surprised by what she learned from the interviews. “Becoming a citizen lacks meaning for many immigrants because many Americans do not value being a citizen. I feel that is part of the reason why many immigrants treat naturalization as just an economic burden or a necessary step to ensure the arrival of another family member.” 

To increase naturalization rates, the authors of “Why don’t they naturalize: Voices from the Dominican community?” suggest lowering costs, making the processes more user-friendly, and addressing the perception that U.S. citizenship requires the rejection of a deeply-held identity. Immigration is currently about “paperwork, deadlines, filling in the correct boxes, etc.,” says Cusato-Rosa. “I would love to see the process become something that creates pride in immigrants.”

The very concept of citizenship, Professor Hyde and his co-authors wrote, may need a rethinking in the current era of globalization and transnational ties. “There should be some way of extending political rights,” they conclude, “and freedom from discrimination and deportation, to long-term residents of the United States, without requiring them to undergo what they experience as wrenching assaults on their identity.”

Public policy issues related to labor, employment and immigration law, including the law and economics of family unification, are the focus of Professor Hyde’s teaching and scholarship. “Rutgers–Newark is the best law school in the country to teach immigration law,” he says. “Where else could I possibly have two students of Dominican ancestry in the same seminar? Here immigration is not an interesting problem in constitutional or administrative law. It’s our students’ lives.”

After 11 years in the Newark public school system, Bridgit Cusato-Rosa was asked to lead a failing school in Camden. She currently is Campus Director of Freedom Prep Charter in Camden. Ray Mateo is a Deputy Attorney General in the Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau, Office of the Attorney General of New Jersey. He previously was an associate in the immigration law department at Wilens and Baker, PC.