In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Latino Naturalization in Comparative Perspective

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and National-Level Data Sources
  • Immigration and Naturalization Regimes
  • Naturalization, National Belonging, and Dual Nationality
  • Birthright Citizenship and the Citizenship Status of the Immigrant Second Generation

Latino Studies Latino Naturalization in Comparative Perspective
Louis DeSipio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0034


Naturalization is the legal process by which an immigrant formally adopts the citizenship of the country of migration. More than for any other US racial/ethnic community, naturalization has been critical to the long-term civic and political incorporation of Latinos. Latino migration to the United States grew throughout the 20th century and will continue to surge in the 21st century. For these Latino immigrants to be able to engage fully in US politics and to make demands on political institutions equal to the native-born, they must naturalize. As suggested below, however, immigrants generally and Latino immigrants more specifically face barriers to naturalization. Latinos are less likely than other contemporary immigrant groups to naturalize, and those who do take longer to become US citizens. The costs to Latino empowerment of non-naturalization are not limited to the immigrant generation. Children of immigrants born in the United States are US citizens, but they are less likely to be fully socialized into US politics if their immigrant parents did not naturalize. Thus, despite birthright citizenship, Latino civic engagement and participation can continue to lag for the US-born children of immigrants. It is important to look at the question of naturalization broadly and comparatively in order to understand more fully why some immigrants naturalize and others do not. Most countries, for example, allow immigrants (or, in some cases, their children or grandchildren born in the country of migration) to naturalize, though all establish limits on who can naturalize and under what circumstances. Countries that have relied on large-scale ongoing immigration to build their national populations—such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand—have established relatively low barriers to naturalization in the modern era but have histories of excluding some groups from naturalization or making it difficult for group members to exercise this right without state interference. Latinos fall into this latter category. Regardless of the standards for naturalization, not all immigrants who are eligible to naturalize do so, and no country requires immigrants to naturalize. Considering naturalization’s long-term importance to building national populations and the national political identity, naturalization policies are highly contested. The history of naturalization in the United States—and particularly of Latino naturalization—offers an example of this contestation and of the long-term importance of naturalization. Today, approximately 8 percent of new US citizens each year are newly naturalized citizens.

General Overviews and National-Level Data Sources

Naturalization is a core function of the modern state. Among the first acts of the first US Congress was the passage of a national naturalization law. Naturalization was of sufficient importance that the US Constitution rests the power to “establish a uniform rule of naturalization” in the national government, one of relatively few enumerated powers held exclusively by the national government. US naturalization law has been amended since the Constitution became law, a history documented with extensive analysis in Franklin 1969 and LeMay and Barkan 1999. The latter volume also details changes in US immigration laws from 1787 to 1996. The legislative history of naturalization is not as long in European states, but the changes in naturalization laws and policies in the modern era are chronicled in Bauböck, et al. 2005. Considering the importance of naturalization, particularly for the advanced democracies that are the chosen destination of immigrants with training and labor skills desired by their industrial economies, it is not surprising that government maintains data on the characteristics of immigrants who naturalize. Data on immigrants in the twenty-seven European Union countries can be found at Eurostat 2010. These data are updated annually. The US Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency with oversight of immigration and naturalization, publishes an annual statistical yearbook of immigration, refugee, naturalization, and deportation data (Office of Immigration Statistics 2011). The Department of Homeland Security also publishes an annual report on naturalizations, with some commentary in addition to the data presentations (Lee 2011). Government data are an excellent starting point for analysis of naturalization patterns, but governments cannot ask some questions of immigrants, so government data need to be supplemented with survey data that can offer more context about the attitudes and behaviors that accompany the decision to naturalize. Two recent large-scale surveys of Latinos (Fraga, et al. 2008) and Asian Americans (Ramakrishnan, et al. 2011) in the United States include the two pan-ethnic populations that make up more than 80 percent of immigrants to the United States. At present, there are no comparable survey data for European immigrant populations.

  • Bauböck, Rainer, Eva Ersbøll, Kees Groenendijk, and Harald Waldrauch, eds. Acquisition and Loss of Nationality: Policies and Trends in 15 European Countries. Vol. 1, Comparative Analyses. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

    A comparative analysis of fifteen European countries of the rules for acquiring (and losing) citizenship. The discussion is very attentive to how national citizenship policies have changed in recent years and the trends apparent in Europe today.

  • Eurostat. Acquisitions of Citizenship Slightly Declining in the EU. Luxembourg: Eurostat, 2010.

    Data on naturalization in each of the European Union nations in 2008. Nearly 700,000 immigrants naturalized in the twenty-seven European Union countries, a 4 percent decline from 2007. France had the highest number of naturalizations, and Sweden had the highest share of naturalizations relative to its total population.

  • Fraga, Luis R., John A. García, Rodney Hero, Michael Jones-Correa, Valerie Martínez-Ebers, and Gary M. Segura. Latino National Survey (LNS), 2006. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2008.

    The raw data from a 2006 survey of Latinos in the United States. These data allow for analysis of Latinos who trace their origin and ancestry to Spanish-speaking nations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It includes detailed questions on immigrant status, naturalization, and plans for naturalization for the non-naturalized. Published by the producer (Geoscape International) in Miami, Florida, in 2006.

  • Franklin, Frank George. The Legislative History of Naturalization in the United States. New York: Arno, 1969.

    A history of the first century of US congressional debates over naturalization, from the nation’s first naturalization law in 1790 through the first period of mass opposition to immigration and naturalization (the 1850s). This study demonstrates that fears about immigrant quality lead to pressures on Congress to restrict naturalization access.

  • Lee, James. U.S. Naturalizations: 2010. Washington, DC: Office of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security, 2011.

    A brief annual summary of data on the numbers of immigrants naturalizing, their countries of origin, their states and cities of residence, and some of their demographic characteristics. Although the author may vary, the Office of Immigration Statistics publishes this report annually.

  • LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    A compendium of the text of US immigration and naturalization laws, Supreme Court rulings, and selected other policy documents from the colonial era through 1996. The volume is an excellent source of primary documents on US immigration and naturalization laws.

  • Office of Immigration Statistics. 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: Office of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security, 2011.

    The annual compendium of statistics on all aspects of immigration and naturalization. Although the specific data included in the Yearbook have varied from year to year, a form of this publication has been published since the 1960s and allows for multiyear analysis of immigration and naturalization patterns.

  • Ramakrishnan, Karthick, Jane Junn, Taeku Lee, and Janelle Wong. National Asian American Survey, 2008. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2011.

    The raw data from a national survey of Asian Americans conducted in 2008. These data allow for analysis of the political values, attitudes, and behaviors of naturalized Asian Americans and to contrast the naturalized to the US-born and to immigrants who have not naturalized.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.