MEXICO CITY—Some came for love. Some came for work. Others just wound up here and decided to stay.
On a recent sunny day, 50 immigrants from the United States, China, Italy, Spain and elsewhere rose to their feet before a crowd of dignitaries and took a life-changing step: They became Mexicans.
“Citizens,” President Vicente Fox intoned. “Do you renounce your nationality of origin . . . to assume all the rights and obligations that the acquisition of Mexican nationality confers?”
“Yes, we renounce it,” the immigrants said, and the crowd broke into applause.
With a half-million Mexican migrants leaving their country for the United States each year, Mexico itself may seem an unlikely Promised Land. But last year, at least 4,349 people from other countries became naturalized Mexicans, up more than sevenfold from 510 in 1995. And that’s not counting the 98,019 Mexican-Americans who have reclaimed their Mexican citizenship since 1998.
The rise is partly due to new laws relaxing Mexico’s immigration rules. Some of the new Mexicans are poor people who want to become part of Latin America’s strongest economy. Others are professionals who see advantages in having two passports in a globalized world.
Most naturalized Mexicans come from Guatemala, followed by Colombia, Cuba and China, the Mexican Foreign Ministry says. The April naturalization ceremony included a Spanish writer, a British housewife, a Cuban chemist, an Argentine pastry chef, a Russian orchestra conductor, an Italian priest and a U.S. businessman.
Under Mexican law, any foreigner living legally in Mexico on a work or residency visa for five years can apply for citizenship. Applicants must prove they are proficient in Spanish and pass a test on Mexican history and culture.
The waiting period drops to two years if residents are married to a Mexican, give birth to a child in Mexico or provide a “special benefit” to Mexico. Big investors, actors and professional athletes often get this special treatment.
Despite the steep increase, the number of people immigrating to Mexico is still tiny compared with those immigrating to the United States. A total of 537,151 foreigners, including 63,840 Mexicans, became U.S. citizens in fiscal 2004.
In addition to relaxing the rules for foreigners, Mexico has been opening its arms to emigrants who left their homeland years ago.
Mexico used to automatically revoke the citizenship of any Mexican who became a citizen of another country. But with migrants sending home about $20 billion a year to their families, the Mexican government has been trying to reward expatriates for their loyalty. In 1998, it began issuing “nationality declarations,” which restored Mexican citizenship. Tens of thousands of Mexicans applied for them in the first few years of the program.
“It was a way of helping all those people who had gone abroad,” Vergara said.
Last year, Mexican lawmakers relaxed the rules even further by allowing immigration officials to certify Mexican nationals even if they lack an official document like a birth certificate. Unlike naturalized Mexicans, native-born Mexicans are allowed to hold the citizenship of another country under Mexican law.
The changes have opened the door for Mexican-Americans who want to move back to Mexico when they retire.