How ‘America First’ policies put US citizens last

As the final step in the citizenship process for immigrants, naturalization has long been recognized as a core building block of our democracy that contributes to our nation’s strength. The joy of naturalization ceremonies and a comparison of how different groups fare in the United States evidence the great importance of naturalization.

Over and against this evidence, the current administration has made strenuous efforts to impede the naturalization process and undermine citizenship.

According to a report from the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) on most measures of employment, income, and education — legal noncitizens are better off than the undocumented, and the naturalized population matches or exceeds the native-born population. 

For example, the undocumented population averages $26,600 in personal income; legal noncitizens, $30,500; naturalized citizens, $45,600; and the native-born, $40,600.

This pattern of gains is similar to homeownership, health insurance, college degree, and skilled employment. When immigrants graduate to more secure and permanent statuses, they benefit, and so do their families and communities. 

Naturalization and the steps leading to it should be encouraged by U.S. leaders who want to raise income levels, increase homeownership and health insurance coverage, and reduce the undocumented population. Instead, the Trump administration has proposed obstacles, to permanent residence and citizenship, including:  

  1. A “proclamation” to suspend and limit the legal immigration of those who “will not be covered by approved health insurance… within 30 days;” 

  2. The public charge rule, which would make it far more difficult for immigrants “likely” to receive certain public benefits to adjust to lawful permanent resident status;

  3. Moving requirements for naturalization, including a civics test and English proficiency requirement, to earlier in the process; and 

  4. Fee increases for naturalization and other immigration applications, coupled with a more restrictive and burdensome fee waiver process.

These measures set up requirements for gaining more secure and permanent legal status; however, most people would meet these requirements — if they could advance in status.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found that the new public charge rule would “disproportionately affect women, children, and the elderly.” CMS estimates that the health insurance requirement would not be met by more than one-half of U.S. undocumented residents, blocking them from gaining permanent status, which correlates with far higher insurance rates. 

In addition to preventing naturalization, the administration has sought to take away secure legal status. It has:

  1. Sought to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program;

  2. Sought to rescind Temporary Protective Status (TPS) from 90 percent of recipients; and

  3. Embarked on a denaturalization effort, involving ICE’s review of the files of 700,000 naturalized persons.

President Trump said his immigration policies are aimed at “strengthening the bonds of citizenship that bind us together as a national family.” In actuality, these policies have torn the social fabric of our country, creating two-tiers of citizens. One tier is afforded the full benefits of membership, and the other tier, also U.S. citizens, is not. 

The U.S.-born children of the undocumented, who — like the vast majority of U.S. citizens — gained citizenship by birth, have been impacted the most. At least 5.2 million U.S. citizens (4.5 million children and 730,000 adults) are living with at least one undocumented parent. These citizens live in fear of family separation, heightened by the administration’s overly broad enforcement priorities “against all removable aliens.”

Especially for minor children, a parent’s deportation can be devastating. Such children may be forced to leave the United States with their deported parents. 

Most stay but face great obstacles. Older children may have to assume adult responsibilities to care for their younger siblings. And family separation is a trauma, which impacts children’s health and damages familial relationships.

Even when parents are not deported, U.S. citizen children live in fear, and their parents are sometimes afraid to enroll them in benefit programs they are eligible for. 

Under this two-tier citizenship system, our ideal of equality under the law is tarnished, and some citizens are blocked from fully contributing. These policies impoverish families, cause many Americans to suffer, and sow discord. We can do better as a nation.

The same CMS report found that 11 percent of the U.S. undocumented population lives with 1.1 million eligible-to-naturalize relatives. Naturalization would enable this population to petition for permanent visas for their undocumented family members.

The administration could also establish meaningful enforcement priorities.

ICE has detained fewer immigrants with serious criminal convictions under Trump. It could extend and expand the DACA program, appropriate funding to reduce naturalization visa backlogs, and pass legislation that provides a path to citizenship for DACA, long-term TPS residents, and other populations with strong, equitable ties in the United States.

In short, we could put Americans first.

Emma Winters is the communications coordinator for the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

Tags Citizenship Citizenship of the United States deferred action for childhood arrivals Demography Donald Trump Illegal immigration Illegal immigration to the United States Nationality law Naturalization

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