Citizenship Applications Remain Low Long After Fee Increase
September 24, 2008
Just over a year ago, the American dream became more expensive. The cost of applying for citizenship shot up from $400 to $675. Since then, a new report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) shows, many low-income immigrants are finding it prohibitively expensive to attain the dream of citizenship. The report, entitled "Priced Out: U.S. Citizenship, a privilege for the rich and well-educated?", states that in the first six months of this year an average of 46,866 immigrants applied for citizenship each month, a 59 percent decrease from last year.
While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) explained to USA Today that a dip in applications is to be expected following a fee increase, over a year later the level of applications is still low. New Yorkers have submitted approximately 1,000 fewer applications each month than they did in October 2006, before the fee increase was announced, the report says. It adds that being unable to afford the fees is the biggest obstacle for eligible immigrants.
USCIS is a fee-based agency, meaning that rather than receiving its funding from Congress it relies on fees charged to applicants. The fees that citizenship applicants pay cover many activities unconnected with the processing of the application, including refugee and asylum services and litigation expenses. To cover these costs, the fee has gone up 610 percent in the last ten years. Over the same period, the minimum wage increased by only 27 percent, "Priced Out" highlights. The report calculates that an immigrant earning the federal minimum wage and working full time would have to save eight weeks of their entire paycheck to pay the citizenship fees of $2270 for a family of four.
ICIRR believes it is unfair for fees to pay for more than the cost of processing applications. To ICIRR, citizenship is important in ensuring that all who live, work, contribute and raise families in the United States have equal rights and responsibilities. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies which calls for reduced immigration and is often at odds with immigrant advocates like ICIRR, echoed this view when speaking with USA Today, adding, "Once you've admitted people to legally reside in the United States, we want them to naturalize. ... If they're not, that's a problem."
An option for individuals unable to pay the application fee is to apply for a fee waiver <pdf> with the citizenship application. USCIS considers a variety of factors in granting a waiver, including whether an individual qualifies for a federal means-tested benefit (e.g. Food Stamps, Medicaid), whether an individual's income is below the poverty level, and whether the individual is elderly or disabled. Requesting a fee waiver does not guarantee that you will receive it. USCIS approves about two-thirds of all fee waiver requests. "Priced Out" finds that the amount of documentation required for the fee waiver is problematic, which could explain the approval rate. You can receive free assistance with fee waiver and naturalization applications by visiting one of the CUNY Citizenship and Immigration Project centers in New York City.
ICIRR recommends the government tie the cost of citizenship
to the federal minimum wage, and call for Congress to fund USCIS's operations
beyond application processing. The Obama-Gutierrez Citizenship Promotion Act
of 2007 (H.R. 1379 <pdf>/
S. 795 <pdf>), introduced last year, addresses these issues. Both bills are currently stalled in committee. To express your support for these bills, you can call your Representative and Senators and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 1379 and S. 3005 respectively. The Capitol Switchboard is (202) 224-3121. To find out who your Representative is, input your address at www.house.gov; for Senators, select your state at www.senate.gov.