Congress must take down Trump administration's barriers to citizenship

Congress must take down Trump administration's barriers to citizenship
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There is no question that democracy flourishes as a result of the active participation of voters — citizens determined to make our country representative of the people who call it home. Citizenship never should be restricted to those with power or money, or based on race, but an under-the-radar immigration form change and imminent increases to citizenship application fees could do just that. 

These changes, compounded by the Trump administration’s refusal to address unprecedented backlogs and processing delays faced by citizenship applicants, are part of a larger menu of policy changes that make citizenship inaccessible. 

In what appears to be an attempt to stack the deck against lower-income immigrants and immigrants of color who aim to gain lawful permanent residency and contribute to their communities, Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has continued to push fee waivers for naturalization further out of reach for the most vulnerable and stated that, next month, it expects the Department of Homeland Security to raise fees for immigration applications. 

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Our federal lawmakers must vocally reject the wealth test, which also disproportionately impacts immigrants of color, that the administration seeks to impose. This would make a narrow, elitist  and racist vision of who belongs in the United States a reality.  

The fee to naturalize has risen steadily by 800 percent in real terms since 1985. The price tag, $725 to file the application and thousands of dollars more for language classes and attorneys, would be overwhelming for most families and impossible for those working in low-wage jobs. For this reason, applying for a fee waiver should be straightforward and fair. 

The existing application form grants fee waivers for those on programs such as Medicaid and SNAP, giving USCIS an efficient and government-verified way of making that decision. Going forward, USCIS plans to reject the calculations and conclusions of state agencies who are the primary assessors of income eligibility for support that reaches people who have no disposable income to pay for health care or food. Sadly, the USCIS approach now will price these people out of achieving American citizenship — the highest honor conferred by our immigration system to longtime residents who have demonstrated tenacity and commitment to undergo the naturalization process. 

In USCIS’s proposed change, the agency would assume a new scope in determining all individual income calculations itself and a new workload of assessing and applying it — which will complicate the process and make it harder for nonprofit organizations to help applicants. The shift will put further strain on an overburdened agency and make the process toward citizenship slower and rife with needless difficulties. By throwing out the tried-and-true method of proving fee waiver eligibility, USCIS can institute a more difficult standard to meet and prove. These changes will exponentially increase the processing delays applicants face. 

Unfortunately, this is not the side of history that fulfills the promise of our immigration system to our country’s families.

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In our internal March 2019 study — surveying 200 organizations within the New Americans Campaign that works to provide eligible immigrants with resources about naturalization — 15 percent of respondents reported that adjudicators are questioning the legitimacy of fee waiver applicants’ low-income status by asking irrelevant questions, after the fee waiver has been approved.

Ironically, once naturalized, the use of public benefits decreases as immigrants gain more opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty and contribute to their communities. Given the ability to apply for a greater range of jobs, an Urban Institute study across 21 cities found that if immigrants who are eligible to naturalize became citizens, their annual earnings would increase by an average of $3,200, the employment rate would rise by over 2 percent, and homeownership would grow by more than 6 percent. 

Barriers within the immigration system are steep. Chief among them is the enormous expense and administrative burden — cited by 18 percent of Latino immigrants as the main obstacle to citizenship. Congress must intervene to prevent the administration from fortifying the barriers it has created for permanent residents to obtain the security and full participation of citizenship. Our promise to permanent residents — that is, the chance to succeed and to be part of something larger — must hold true. It must be equally available to individuals regardless of race, income, religion or political persuasion. 

To protect the opportunities that naturalization embodies, our elected representatives must preserve access to fee waivers, halt the planned increase of already exorbitant fees and stand against policies that erect barriers to naturalization. Without providing checks and balances against the administration’s policies, we will imperil the hopes of families for generations to come.  

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which leads the New Americans Campaign, the largest naturalization collaboration in the United States.