Why are there so few naturalisations in Latin America?

By Diego Acosta (University of Bristol), GLOBALCIT collaborator.

From a legal point of view, naturalisation leads to the most secure status which allows migrants to fully become part of the host country and society through democratic inclusion. Legal equality and political participation generally depend on access to nationality. Thus, numerous authors have argued that democratic countries should give immigrants the possibility of naturalising, as these countries have a crucial interest in encouraging this process because common citizenship provides a point of reference for solidarity in societies composed of individuals with different origins.

Whilst numerous challenges persist, both the EU´s 28 MS and the USA offer naturalisation to hundreds of thousands each year. In the former, 825,400 naturalised in 2017; in the latter, the number was 707,265 people in that same year.

In the Latin American context, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has, departing from Article 20 of the American Convention on Human Rights enshrining the right to a nationality, established certain limits on what State parties can do. Whilst accepting their legal competence to determine their own rules, any restrictions on access to nationality must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality and be oriented towards satisfying an imperative public interest.

Most nationality laws can also be characterised as moderately open – with toleration of dual citizenship and short residence requirements being the norm. Nevertheless, the number of naturalisations – in countries where data is available– is extremely low. For example, in Uruguay, 3770 obtained legal citizenship between 2006 and 2018. The number was of 7800 in Chile (2006-14). Data for Peru show 13.254 naturalisations (2001-2017). Numbers are not higher in Colombia or Paraguay, and only slightly so in Mexico. In Colombia, less than 220 (2010-11), 777 in Paraguay (1996-2013) and 57,808 in Mexico from 2000 to 2013, with an average number of slightly above 4,000 per year. This is even more surprising considering that according to the 2017 United Nations International Migrant Stock there were 5.5 million migrants between South American countries (all except Surinam and Guyana), Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico. That number is now much higher due to the emigration of Venezuelans.

What explains such strikingly low numbers? Four reasons might be anticipated. First, there is some historical continuity since naturalisation has always been a path followed by very few in the region (Acosta 2018). Second, the need to renounce the previous nationality, at least on paper, in countries like Mexico, could act as a deterrent. Third, immigration rates have been quite low in Latin America since the large immigrations of the early 20th Century. Fourth, most current immigration is of regional origin and regional integration processes such as MERCOSUR, the Andean Community but also the Central American System of Integration (SICA in its Spanish acronym), have facilitated mobility, residence and access to rights for regional migrants thus possibly limiting incentives to naturalise. It is however striking to see the enormous appetite for naturalisation Latin Americans show in other parts of the world. Between 2008-2017, more than 775 thousand South and Central Americans, and Mexicans, naturalised in Spain through residence in the country.

Indeed, the reasons for such low numbers have to be found somewhere else. Lack of information or government campaigns, difficult administrative procedures to collect all documentation and discriminatory practices by key actors (e.g. the police in Brazil) towards naturalisation applicants seem to be much more important than other factors. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions (Courtis &Penchaszadeh 2015; Blanchette 2015), we lack research on this crucial issue.

Such research is now more needed than ever for four reasons. First, the unexpected displacement of more than three million Venezuelans since 2015 to other countries in the region, means that Latin America, and in particular some states, such as Colombia or Peru, do now have higher immigration rates. Some of these receiving states have already put into place measures to avoid access to nationality for Venezuelans. For example, Colombia grants those coming from the neighbouring country temporary residence permits with no pathways towards naturalisation. Second, Mexico will continue to receive nationals coming from the countries in the North triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). Those obtaining a residence permit in the country could potentially apply for citizenship after two years of residence rather than five due to the special exception for Latin Americans. Third, Nicaraguans have similarly recently emigrated to Costa Rica, where they also enjoy privileged access to citizenship by virtue of being Central Americans. Finally, restrictions in migration law in countries like Argentina, with effects also for regional migrants in terms of possible expulsions following minor administrative offences, mean there could be a larger interest in obtaining dual citizenship.

Researchers in Latin America and beyond coming from different disciplines (Anthropology, Sociology, Law, Politics and others) could begin their research by establishing naturalisations rates in the different countries, that is the number of naturalisations per year divided by the foreign resident population at the beginning of a given year. They are then encouraged to unveil the mechanisms through which foreigners remain foreigners in Latin America and the reasons behind strikingly low naturalisation numbers in the region in comparative perspective.


Acosta, D. (2018), The National versus the Foreigner in South America. 200 Years of Migration and Citizenship Law. Cambridge University Press.

Blanchette, T.G. (2015), ‘“Almost a Brazilian” Gringos, Immigration, and Irregularity in Brazil’, in D. Acosta & A. Wiesbrock (eds.), Global Migration: Old Assumptions, New Dynamics, 167-194. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Courtis, C. & A.P. Penchaszadeh (2015), ‘El (im)posible ciudadano extranjero. Ciudadanía y nacionalidad en Argentina’, Revista SAAP 9 (2): 375-394.