Investment in Citizenship Will Strengthen Country

Advocates launch “Becoming Americans” campaign calling on Congress, U.S.C.I.S. to support legal “green card” holder immigrants who dream of American citizenship

An investment in citizenship and reduction of naturalization fees will strengthen our democracy and will keep the United States economically competitive globally, a group of researchers and immigrant advocates said on a national media call today. A new report — “Nurturing Naturalization: Could Lowering the Fee Help?” — indicates that for working poor immigrants with less education and income, the $680 cost of applying for U.S. citizenship has become a major barrier to becoming Americans — especially for Mexican immigrants.

The “Nurturing Naturalization” report was conducted by the University of Southern California Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) and commissioned by the National Partnership for New Americans(Partnership). Together with a report released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center (“The Path Not Taken”), the new report shows that the American dream of citizenship has become unaffordable for many immigrants to the U.S.

“When the fees went up, the share of those who are less educated who applied went down dramatically, the length of time between entering the country and naturalizing went up dramatically, and the share of Mexican immigrants, who tend to be more working class, went down dramatically,” said Dr. Manuel Pastor, Co-Director of CSII and report co-author. “The cost of the naturalization fee is having an impact on who are able to apply.”

According to original analysis in the “Nurturing Naturalization” report, “Fee increases trigger a dramatic decline in the naturalization of less educated (and likely lower income) immigrants, an increase in the number of years immigrants wait to become citizens, and a change in the national origin of the naturalizing population, in particular a relative reduction in those who were born in Mexico.” In addition, the report indicates:

  • The percentage of immigrants with less than a high school education becoming U.S. citizens has declined by 50% since 1996, from 30% of the total down to 15% currently. Most of the decline has come since 2007, when the cost of citizenship increased from $395 to $675.
  • The percentage of Mexican immigrants becoming U.S. citizens also declined dramatically, from a high of 24% of the total in 1996 to a current low of 13%. Again, most of the decline has come since the 2007 fee increase.
  • Working poor immigrants, those with less education and income, are deeply sensitive to price increases.
  • The significant increases in the cost of applying for U.S. citizenship — which cost only $95 as recently as 1997 — have resulted in a systemic barrier to U.S. citizenship for the working poor.

As noted in the “The Path Not Taken,” despite these barriers, fully 93 percent of Latino immigrants want to become U.S. citizens.

“We at the Partnership take naturalization very seriously, having helped 14,448 immigrants to naturalize last year,” said Joshua Hoyt, National Partnership for New Americans Co-Chair and Chief Strategy Executive for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). “Much of the national debate has centered on a path to citizenship for the undocumented; however, largely overlooked are the 8.5 million legal permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship and eager to naturalize. We believe that helping them to become full citizens is better for them and better for our nation.”

“It is as true today as in the early days of our nation: Immigrants are eager to become full-fledged Americans,” said Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum. “As Congress gets to work on fixing our immigration laws to include a road to citizenship for immigrants without papers, our naturalization process must continue to improve. As a proud nation of immigrants, we should be encouraging, not burdening, contributing immigrants in their journey to citizenship.”

The Partnership, together with the National Immigration Forum, announced the “Becoming Americans” campaign, to allow hardworking immigrants to pursue their dream of becoming U.S. citizens. The advocates called on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (U.S.C.I.S.) to examine its fee structure and to reduce the costs of U.S. citizenship, especially for the working poor. The groups called on Congress to recognize the value of citizenship by investing in immigrant integration and putting naturalization fees within reach for our newest Americans.

“CHIRLA works with immigrants who want to become citizens every day. They want to be fully integrated and they want to give back to the country that they love, but price is a major barrier,” said Angelica Salas, Executive Director of The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), a member of the Partnership. “The fact that the poorest among us are not becoming citizens should show us that we need to change the fees so that the decision to become a citizen is about allegiance and not about affordability. It is up to Congress and U.S.C.I.S. to decide if they are going to open a golden door of opportunity to all or shut it because of the high cost of citizenship.”

“When I was a child, I wasn’t always clear on the difference between being a legal permanent resident and a U.S. citizen. But as I grew up, I became aware of what citizenship means,” said Margarita Gutierrez, a Mexican immigrant and college graduate living in Portland, Oregon, who has delayed becoming a citizen due to high fees. “As farmworkers, because of their lack of understanding of the process and the high fees, my parents haven’t been able to naturalize.”
The “Nurturing Naturalization” report has been delivered to U.S.C.I.S. Director Alejandro Mayorkas, and the Partnership has met with him several times asking that he address and reduce the obstacles preventing new Americans from becoming U.S. citizens.

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