Opinion: Applying for U.S. Citizenship Should be Free
It shouldn’t cost a cent for an immigrant to apply for United States citizenship. Here’s why:
After residing in the United States with their green card for five years (or many more), having “good moral character” and maintaining limited travel, immigrants visit us so we can assist with preparing their application and prepping them for their interview. While the thousands of immigrants come to our Citizenship Department at CASA in Maryland, meet ALL of the requirements for citizenship, more than half of them cannot afford the exorbitant price tag that comes along with applying. It’s wrong.
Over the last 34 years, the fee for naturalization has risen exponentially from $35 in 1985 to an incredible $725 to apply today. With the fee on the rise, many eligible immigrants fear that they will never be able to apply for citizenship in their lifetime. The message that we are sending to our immigrants is clear: sure, you can become a citizen…if you can afford it. In alignment with President Trump’s recent attack on poor immigrants with the passing of the recent public charge ruling, the fee itself discriminates against low-income folks who should be able to naturalize easily.
It’s important to note that the $725 fee doesn’t come close to the total financial burden in actual costs that immigrants have invested in the process. Many applying are also paying hundreds of dollars for English classes, U.S. history and government classes, legal fees, transportation fees, and are already sacrificing chunks of their paychecks when taking off from work to complete the process.
Why do green card holders want to get their citizenship? Because it grants them a long list of benefits from voting in elections for candidates that represent their interests to having access to better jobs and overall better economic prosperity. Additionally, with the administration’s heinous language and policies on immigration, even immigrants who are residing in the U.S. legally fear for deportation more than ever, though they have a right to U.S. citizenship after meeting the requirements.
The bottom line is this: Money should not be a barrier to U.S. citizenship.
Many people argue that these immigration fees are necessary, since the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes citizenship applications, doesn’t get funding directly from the government. But perhaps, this is a signal that Congress should allocate taxpayer money to cover citizenship processing fees.
Applying for citizenship should cost nothing. As U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) mentioned in a recent interview in regard to his proposed bill to increase access to fee waivers, “Citizenship promotes integration, civic responsibility, and a sense of community, which ultimately benefits all Americans.”
There are currently fee waivers available for low-income immigrants that an applicant can apply for based on their income level, their receipt of means-tested benefits, or financial hardship. However, the income-based requirement, that requires applicants to prove their income was at or below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline, doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of those who are in need.
I personally know many families who take out personal loans to afford the fee. Keep in mind that nearly half of the US population doesn’t have just $300 to cover an unanticipated expense.
To make things worse, USCIS has recently proposed to stop granting waivers for applicants who currently receive means tested benefits like Medicaid. In other words, USCIS has basically decided that only their office can determine whether a person needs assistance or not – despite state benefit granting agencies assessing need-based eligibility for years.
To those who are eligible for citizenship, apply now if you want to have a chance at voting in the 2020 election. Many local and state governments and non-profit organizations have temporary solutions to assist green card holders with the fee. For example, Montgomery County has partnered with CASA to provide a scholarship for residents of the county applying for citizenship. Other organizations like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) and other members of the National Partnership for New Americans, are working hard to come up with solutions to make the fee more affordable for applicants. But this cannot be a permanent solution.
As a country, this cannot be how we treat people who have sacrificed everything to be here and who have contributed so deeply, both culturally and economically, to the core of our country. The physical and emotional cost of immigrating to a new country is high enough. When it comes to the brotherhood and sisterhood of our American family, a majority of immigrants, to us, are already United States citizens. Now it’s time for Congress to lift the financial hardship and make it possible for them to act as full citizens.
–CATHRYN A. PAUL
The writer is the Citizenship Program Coordinator at CASA in Maryland, an immigrants’ rights group. She can be contacted at [email protected]