How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Are steep fees discouraging immigrants from becoming US citizens?

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Just in the last 15 years, the cost of becoming a U.S. citizen has risen dramatically. The application fee has risen from $95 in 1997 to almost $600 today. For many immigrants, this represents a big financial sacrifice. And it could be one of the main reasons why more of them don't pursue citizenship, a new report points out.

The report from the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration connects the steep cost of obtaining U.S. citizenship to the nation's 8.5 million legal permanent residents who are eligible to apply for naturalization, but haven't done it.

With reference to related studies, it points out that in 2007, about 52 percent of legal permanent residents who were eligible to naturalize were low-income. The cost factor has surfaced in other surveys of immigrants, including in a recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center which noted that Mexican-born legal residents naturalize at lower rates than other immigrants:

The report’s survey results suggest that an overwhelming 93 percent of Latino immigrants who have not yet naturalized say they would if they could. Of those Latino immigrants eligible to naturalize, almost 20 percent cited financial costs as a main prohibitive factor to naturalizing, with another 28 percent conveying language and other personal barriers. This further suggests the negative impact of high costs on the rate of naturalization, particularly for groups with generally lower incomes and English-language difficulties.

Naturalization numbers over the years from the federal government do bear out how fee hikes have affected applications, in particular the steep increase in 2007, when the price of applying for U.S. citizenship rose from $330 to $595, not including an additional $85 fee for biometrics.

The 2007 fee hike prompted a rush on N-400 naturalization applications. The numbers spiked in the earlier part of that year as people tried to get in ahead of the fee increase. From the report:

As for fiscal 2007, a year in which the increase was in July, there was no surge in all other applications in that year but there was a big surge in N-400 applications, followed by a dramatic decline in the latter part of that year and into 2008.

The government processed almost 1.4 million naturalization applications in 2007; applications dropped to less than half that number the following year.

As much of a hurdle as it is for some, the price problem is difficult to solve. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles naturalizations, operates based on the fees it collects.  A more recent round of agency fee increases in 2010 spared the N-400.

The report suggests it might be worthwhile for Congress to appropriate more money to the agency; it also mentions micro-loans as one solution that's sprung up in immigrant advocacy circles, although some observers call this "a Band-Aid to a deeper problem."

There's an economic irony, too: The same low-income legal residents who say it costs too much to could ultimately benefit financially from having U.S. citizenship. The report points to one study that examined immigrants' income the year they naturalized and found that "citizen immigrants realized an eight to 11 percent increase in individual earnings, with the increase taking place over the course of several years after naturalization." 

The USC report is a collabortion with the National Partnership for New Americans, a group of immigrant advocates from around the country. Read the complete report here.

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