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Immigrants shift status: no longer sojourners

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After skidding for 30 years, the rate at which immigrants are becoming US citizens is marching upward, one sign of a growing attachment and commitment by the foreign-born to American soil.

Regarded by many social scientists as a positive harbinger, this trend takes on even more significance as new census data show a surge among Hispanic and Asian populations and a significant rise in the portion of the US population that is foreign-born.

The rate at which newcomers become US citizens is influenced by a wide range of factors, including the passage of state and federal legislation that adversely affects nonvoting residents. Taking the oath generally benefits the individual - who can then vote - and society as a whole, say many analysts.

"It's an important barometer. What it reveals is the degree to which people coming here envision themselves as settlers rather than sojourners," says Peter Morrison, a southern California demographer and consultant to the Rand Corp.

During the 1990s, a settler's mentality is apparently gaining ground. The rate of naturalization nationally is now on a sustained upward path after declining since the 1960s, according to a new analysis from the Public Policy Institute (PPI) of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

Overall, the data look like this. From 1960 to 1993, the rate of naturalization for legal immigrants in the US sagged from 63 percent to 38 percent. Aside from an uptick in the 1960s, the decline was steady and uninterrupted.

But from 1993 to 1997, the latest year of data available for the research, the national rate has jumped, climbing 10 percentage points. In California, which takes in nearly one-third of the nation's immigrants each year, the rate at which newcomers became citizens jumped 8 percent from 1996 to 1997, an increase researchers called "remarkable." The national increase that year was 4 percent.

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