Trump's wealth test for citizenship targets people of color

Trump's wealth test for citizenship targets people of color
© Getty Images

For decades, naturalization has had bipartisan consensus, with both Democrats and Republicans promoting naturalization and paying homage to the many important contributions that naturalized citizens have made to our society, our economy, and our democracy. Naturalization has become an extremely arduous process, including extensive residency requirements, and a more thorough knowledge of U.S. history and government than most individuals born in the U.S. possess. Securing citizenship shows a deep commitment to the United States.

From its beginning, the Trump administration not only eschewed this bipartisan consensus, but it has also done its best to slow down further and complicate the naturalization process, turning U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) into a de facto enforcement agency. Now, by finalizing an unprecedented rise in naturalization fees and ending a waiver program eliminating those fees for qualifying low-income immigrants, the Trump administration has instituted what amounts to the United States' first-ever wealth test for citizenship, making it next to impossible for millions of lower-income immigrants ever to become full participants in our democracy.

The Trump administration tried to justify its new Fee Rule by claiming that USCIS needed to raise fees for naturalization, work permits, green cards, and asylum applications due to an unprecedented increase in the number of new applications for these benefits. Many advocates, including the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, pointed out that the administration has relied on bad math and faulty revenue modeling to arrive at this conclusion. The administration failed to address this issue, and it has also undercut its rationale by asking for a USCIS bailout from Congress based on a COVID-related decrease in applications. The administration cannot have it both ways.

ADVERTISEMENT

Given the administration's multiple, contradictory positions, there are only two plausible explanations for finalizing such a policy: Either the Trump administration believes that American democracy is a privilege that should only be enjoyed by a wealthy few, or the administration believes that making it harder for immigrants to naturalize would be advantageous to his re-election and his political future. This is a decision calculus that is either intentionally exclusionary or puts securing partisan advantage above fundamental values we all hold dear like freedom and self-governance. 

There is one thing that we know for certain; however: As long as the new rule is allowed to stand, it will have a dramatic and negative impact on new naturalizations. Recent research from Stanford University's Immigration Policy Lab suggests that just making the form low-income immigrants use to apply for a fee waiver more complex would reduce annual naturalization applications by as much as 10 percent. That is exactly what the Trump administration tried to do in an earlier regulatory attempt to wall off U.S. citizenship for the non-wealthy. In the City of Seattle v. DHS, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction putting fee waiver form changes on hold and reverting to the prior form while litigation continues. Now, the Trump administration has forged ahead with even more sweeping changes targeting would-be citizens. 

The administration's new Fee Rule not only prices out immigrants and their families from citizenship, but it also negatively impacts millions of immigrants' ability to afford lawful permanent residence, work permits, asylum, and many other applications. The administration's changes will also make it harder for a large number of new citizens to vote. With millions of current green card holders now excluded from the naturalization process, the Trump administration's policy will effectively limit the ability of a large and growing constituency from fully participating in our democracy.

Conditioning citizenship and voting rights on a person or family's financial status weakens the very concept of citizenship itself and undermines our democratic norms at a crucial time in our nation's history. Unfortunately, this move fits a disturbing pattern of the Trump administration politicizing every aspect of our nation's immigration system to appease the President's white nationalist base, further dividing us up along racial and class lines. It's a pattern that makes us weaker when we need to come together to solve some of the greatest challenges our country has ever faced.

Through this action, we are again reminded that this administration's vision of restoring American greatness is nothing more than a return to a society that is less diverse, less equal, and less bound by a vision of patriotism that recognizes the contributions of every American, including those who were not born on American soil.  

Eric Cohen is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), and Melissa Rodgers is the director of programs at the ILRC. The ILRC seeks to improve immigration law and policy, expand legal service providers' capacity, and advance immigrant rights.