Torn Between Nations, Mexican-Americans Can Have Both
By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK
HOUSTON -- On the day she became a U.S. citizen seven years ago,
Ericka Abraham Rodriguez recalls, she felt a deep ambivalence, her
excitement tinged by a feeling that she was somehow betraying her
native Mexico. "I love both countries," said Ms. Abraham, a 34-year-old
freelance translator. "It was like I was being asked to choose between my
mother and my father."
But for Ms. Abraham and thousands of other Mexican-born Americans,
much of that inner conflict has been swept away in recent weeks as they
have flocked into Mexican consulates around the United States and filed
papers to officially reclaim their Mexican nationality.
Under a new and sweeping provision of Mexico's citizenship laws, any
person born in Mexico or born to a Mexican national who has become a
citizen elsewhere may now officially claim dual nationality. The change
entitles them to have Mexican passports (while keeping their American
ones) and broader rights to own property and to work or invest in Mexico,
though not to have voting rights in Mexican elections.
But many of those who are applying say their overwhelming reason is
so much practical as sentimental.
Mexico is not unique in allowing dual nationality. For years many
naturalized Americans have also legally claimed nationality or even full
citizenship of the countries where they were born, including Canada,
Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, Poland and France.
Still, with the Mexican Embassy estimating that 3 million naturalized
Americans will claim Mexican nationality over the next few years, the new
law will in one swoop add by far the largest number of dual nationals on
U.S. soil, and it has already begun to rekindle a debate that has coursed
through American history, over whether dual nationality undercuts the
meaning of citizenship.
Theodore Roosevelt once called dual nationality a "self-evident absurdity,"
and other critics likened it to polygamy.
Some anti-immigration groups are incensed over the new Mexican law.
president of one, Glenn Spencer of Voice of Citizens Together, based in
Southern California, described it as "nothing less than a large-scale
movement by the Mexican government to reverse the results of the treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo." Under the treaty, Mexico gave up much of what is
now the American Southwest after a war with the United States 150 years
But while opponents say that dual nationality calls into question an
American citizen's central allegiance, proponents of the idea argue that far
from weakening the United States' societal fabric, it may help to spread
American values abroad.
"We are working from enough of a position of strength that we can be
secure in the sustainability of our system, even in the face of large numbers
of dual nationals," said Peter Spiro, a law professor at Hofstra University
who studies immigration and nationality laws.
"I think it works to our advantage to embrace the idea," he said. "You
people with our constitutional values, and then have them put those values
to work back where they were born. It certainly can be part of the strategy
of enlarging global democracy."
Naturalized Americans must take an oath of allegiance in which they
to "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to
any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty."
However, the U.S. government has not challenged dual nationality or
dual citizenship (a stronger status allowing voting rights) of naturalized
Americans or native-born ones, who can claim nationality in some
countries, including Ireland, if their parents or grandparents were born
there. Also, communities of naturalized Americans who were born in South
Korea, India and China are currently pressing those governments for
Neither the State Department nor the immigration service keeps statistics
on the number of Americans, either native-born or naturalized, who hold
nationality elsewhere as well. Estimates by several immigration experts
ranged from 1 million to several times that number.
Many of those who have applied for Mexican nationality in the weeks
Mexico's law took effect on March 20 insist that their doing so poses no
conflict with their identity as Americans.
"The way I see it is that my heart is big enough for one woman and my
three children, with plenty left over for two countries," said Jesus Veyna, a
41-year-old bilingual teacher in the Houston public schools. He says he
cannot wait to return to Torreon, his Mexican birthplace, and show his
Mexican passport to relatives there who have jokingly called him "gringo"
ever since he became an American citizen 14 years ago.
"I'll go there and I'll say, 'Soy mas Mexicano que tu," Veyna said,
English, "I'm more Mexican than you."
At the Mexican consulate the other day, 59-year-old Magdalena Flores
Gonzalez, who came to the United States 33 years ago, gave birth to and
reared four children here, and finally became a U.S. citizen in 1992, said the
new law made her feel that she could restore a piece of herself.
"We were born in Mexico," she said, gesturing to others who were applying
for nationality. "This is all about going back to a reality, the reality that we
Ms. Abraham, the translator who originally came here as a college student,
said she was proud to be an American and the mother of another
American, 3-year-old Tasha Delenn (whose names come from characters
in the "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" television series). Still, she said, "When I
gave up Mexican nationality, I felt like a lost person. You lose part of your
roots, part of your history."
The new Mexican act revokes a previous law that forced anyone who
became a citizen of another country to give up their Mexican nationality.
The new law was passed after years of strenuous campaigning, mostly by
Mexican-born Americans, and was spearheaded by Jose Chapa, a
78-year-old retired broadcaster in Chicago who came to the United States
from Mexico nearly 50 years ago.
Some see those efforts as a prelude to a broader push for voting rights
Mexican elections, which, if approved, would almost surely lead to the
spectacle of widespread campaigning in the United States by Mexican
politicians seeking support from the millions of voters who hold dual
But adding voting rights has been resisted by Mexico's dominant political
party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose leaders perhaps
feel that voters living outside Mexico might be more likely to support other
Mexican-born people living in the United States have already applied
U.S. citizenship in record numbers in the last few years, largely prompted
by concerns over federal laws that cut off benefits for legal immigrants.
But some experts say that Mexico's new law will accelerate that trend
increase Mexican-American participation in the electoral process, because
it removes a psychological barrier that kept many Mexican natives living
here from applying for U.S. citizenship.
Many had also been reluctant to apply because they nurse dreams of
making enough money in the United States to retire some day in Mexico.
Until now, Mexican laws had prevented anyone who became naturalized
elsewhere from owning property on or near the coast or the U.S. border, a
requirement that sprang from security concerns after the
Mexican-American war in the 1800s.
In any event, present-day Mexican-born applicants for U.S. citizenship
have waited about 21 years on average to seek the privilege, compared
with about seven years for all other foreign-born applicants, federal
immigration officials say.
"Before, for many Mexican natives, it was like you're giving up your
your heritage, if you apply to become an American," said Leonel Castillo, a
federal commissioner of immigration and naturalization under President
Jimmy Carter and now an education adviser to Mayor Lee Brown of
"Now with this new law, they don't feel that way," Castillo continued.
won't feel like you've betrayed your birth country. I think it certainly means
more of these people will become U.S. citizens, and that will have a political
impact, no question."
There are plenty of critics of dual nationality.
"I think the scenario describes somebody who is in effect hedging their
which I think displays ambivalence about their identification with the United
States," said John L. Martin, special projects director for the Federation for
American Immigration Reform, a group based in Washington that favors
greater restrictions in immigration. "I don't think there's any way that that
can be seen as healthy for American society."
Moreover, anti-immigration groups have jumped all over a comment made
in February by the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles, Jose Angel
Pescador Osuna, who spoke at a symposium tied to the 150th anniversary
of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
"Even though I am saying this part serious and part joking, I think
practicing la Reconquista in California," Pescador said.
At the consulate in Houston, where a large sign greeting visitors says
Spanish "Your great nation wants you as a Mexican: You decide," officials
said they believe the new law will promote better relations between the two
"These people can be ambassadors," the consul general, Manuel Perez
Cardenas, said, gesturing to the applicants for dual nationality. "They can
build a bridge of friendship."
For now, the number of dual nationals in the United States is clearly
for a surge. And while critics contend the status violates the oath of
allegiance of new citizens, others contend that the oath itself should be
revised, perhaps with a declaration of "core loyalty" to the United States.
"The fact is, right now, many new citizens feel compelled to take an oath
that they have no intention of respecting," argued Spiro, who said it was
ridiculous to require new citizens to renounce all "allegiance and fidelity" to
their native land. "And so, in their very first action as a United States
citizen, they're put in a position where they almost have to commit perjury."