AS Congress debates creating a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, it must at the same time remove one of the biggest obstacles on that path: the cost of applying for citizenship. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, charges $680 (including a mandatory $85 “biometric fee” to cover fingerprinting) to apply for naturalization. This steep fee, which can amount to more than two weeks’ wages for some immigrants, is so high that it effectively denies legal permanent residents a chance to become citizens.
There are 8.5 million legal permanent residents of the United States (also known as green-card holders) who are eligible for citizenship, but in 2011, only about 8 percent of them applied. .
The fees to become a naturalized citizen have risen significantly over the last decade. In 1999, a citizenship application cost $225. The near-tripling of the fee since then has led to a sharp drop in applications for naturalization. In 2007, a surge of immigrants — 1.4 million — applied for citizenship, many of them in anticipation of the fee increase, to $595 (not counting the biometric fee) from $330. In 2008, in contrast, just 525,000 immigrants applied for naturalization.
At $680, an employee earning the federal minimum wage would have to work for more than two months to pay for an application for himself or herself, a spouse and two children.
The fee increase was intended to raise revenue, but the strategy has been penny-wise and pound-foolish. For example, the current cost of renewing a green card for 10 years is $450, with no requirement to be tested in English and a high rate of approval. In contrast, a prospective citizen loses the $680 if his or her application is denied.
A sensible fee structure would set minimum and maximum fees, create a sliding scale based on household income and family size, and consider other factors like the ages of the applicants and school enrollment of minors. It should allow the citizenship application fee to roll over to pay for the green-card renewal, should the applicant fail the naturalization test. In short, the fee structure should reward those willing to make the effort to learn English, to study our nation’s history and our democratic system of government, and to become full participants in our nation, with the right to vote and to take part in civic life.
There are many polarizing aspects of the immigration debate, including provisions over the “dreamers” (young immigrants brought to this country without legal papers), low-skilled agricultural workers, the possible creation of a guest-worker program and the length of the process for illegal immigrants to come forward and eventually attain legal status as citizens. While Congress weighs these issues, it should also include an easy, common-sense fix to ensure that eligible permanent legal residents who are already in this country don’t have their path to citizenship blocked by onerous fees.
To read the full