Explaining Participation: Why It Takes So Long to Become a Citizen
The majority of adult Hispanics do not participate in formal U.S. politics -- even in the fundamental act of voting -- primarily because of low citizenship rates. Why do naturalization rates remain so low? The traditional explanation for participation and turnout has been a socioeconomic, model, which argues that rates of participation are closely correlated with people's social and economic resources; we can predict people's level of participation, that is, by their socioeconomic status. The higher an individual's educational level, for instance, the higher the expected level of participation ( Conway 1991; Milbraith and Goel 1977). But according to this argument one would expect middle-class Latin American immigrants to have high rates of political participation, particularly in one of the most basic political acts, and the first step toward political integration -- taking the oath of citizenship.
Judging from 1990 census data for Queens, the standard socioeconomic explanation does not seem to account for the low levels at which immigrants become members in the polity. These data indicate that standard socioeconomic variables do little to explain the nonparticipation of immigrants in formal politics, while length of stay is highly significant. But the finding that naturalization is correlated with length of stay is not, in itself, an explanation. Why do people take so long to naturalize and enter as participants in formal politics? To explain why length of stay is significant, we turn to a model emphasizing the costs that immigrants face in making the decision to participate politically, rather than simply measuring the resources at their disposal.