“What took you so long?” I ask my client, a lawful permanent resident (LPR) since 1965 who is just now applying for citizenship.
His response is the same as so many others’: the fee is just too high.
The cost of applying for citizenship shouldn’t deter someone from becoming a U.S. citizen. Yet in many cases it does.
The bad news is that the cost of citizenship is expected to increase by the end of 2016. To apply for naturalization currently costs $680 per person, not including the cost of legal representation. Recently, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed an increase to an astounding $725 per person.
Although the proposed fee increase comes with a proposed 50 percent fee reduction for low-income applicants who earn between 150 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level, it does not go far enough to make citizenship accessible for all green card holders who want to realize their dream of becoming a U.S. citizen.
In fact, this partial fee waiver affects only 12 percent of all citizenship-eligible LPRs.
While it’s a step in the right direction, USCIS must do more to break down these cost barriers and bring citizenship in closer reach of the nearly 9 million LPRs eligible to naturalize today.
Helping overcome these barriers and others is what my organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, and the New Americans Campaign are doing every day. Together, we show immigrants that citizenship is not nearly as difficult as they think and that free or low-cost help is available.
Next month we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the New Americans Campaign, a collaboration of stakeholders invested in making naturalization more accessible to the immigrant community. And while we pause to honor the more than 211,000 people whose naturalization applications our network of partners helped complete and the $189 million we’ve helped LPRs save, our work isn’t finished.
In fact, there’s much more to do.
That’s because the proposed fee increase has implications that extend far beyond just the naturalization application. In fact, costs associated with other immigration forms also could increase drastically.
The application for certificate of citizenship could rise from $600 to $1,170, a 95 percent increase. And appeals for a denied naturalization application are set to increase from $650 to $700, making it more expensive for applicants to challenge erroneous denials.
All of these increases will have serious effects on those applying for U.S. citizenship and those who have already naturalized. If these new fees are implemented, a broader sliding scale fee waiver would be necessary to account for the exorbitant increases.
It’s important to applaud USCIS for recognizing the need for a sliding scale fee waiver. Currently, there is a fee waiver available for applicants who are either receiving a means-tested government benefit, have income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline or are experiencing financial hardship.
To put this in context: a family of four living in New York City would have to make less than $36,450 to qualify for the fee waiver based on income. Given these strict guidelines for qualification, many immigrants are precluded from the fee waiver simply because their income is slightly above the very low guideline amount.
With the proposed fee schedule, applicants who are between 150 and 200 percent of the federal poverty will qualify to pay a reduced cost of $320.
While the new fee schedule will greatly benefit many of the clients served by my organization and other New Americans Campaign partners across the country, USCIS’s proposal still falls short.
A sliding scale that is more inclusive of unique family situations, extenuating circumstances and income levels between 200 and 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline are more aligned with the needs of the immigrant community seeking naturalization.
Too many people see the cost of citizenship as a barrier. We shouldn’t discourage immigrants from applying for citizenship by increasing the cost of achieving the American dream without establishing real solutions for fee reduction.
In the last several years USCIS has made a concerted effort to make itself accessible as an agency and also provide quality customer service to the immigrant community. The proposed fee schedule could detract from that message, signaling to LPRs a desire to make naturalization more difficult to obtain.
If USCIS wants to continue building its good rapport among the immigrant community, a re-evaluation of the fee schedule with an expanded sliding scale fee waiver is needed, and the naturalization application fee should remain the same or be reduced.
No one should have to wait 50 years to become citizens and full participants in our society.
Nasim Khansari is the Citizenship Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles and has focused on the area of citizenship, assisting lawful permanent residents with applying for U.S. citizenship for the last six years.