Naturalization is an integral rite of passage for immigrants with lawful permanent resident status to become full fledged U.S. citizens. As of September 2019, about 8.6 million lawful permanent residents were eligible to apply for naturalization in the United States — 4.4 million of which identify as Latino.

The current approach to naturalization by the Trump Administration does not encourage immigrants to complete the process. The Administration’s fee increases and ever growing wait times for approval penalize immigrants who came to the U.S. “the right way.” Immigrants applying for naturalization go through an elaborate process of screening and vetting and have lived in the United States legally for years. The recent fee increases to the naturalization application have made this already burdensome process less accessible, especially to those in the lower economic income brackets.

In November 2019, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services proposed fee changes that increased the application fee for naturalization by 83 percent, from $640 to $1170, for a Form N-400. The proposed rule also sought to eliminate fee waivers. NALEO reports that in a 2015 study of 21 cities, 33 percent of lawful permanent residents eligible for naturalization qualified for fee waivers.  

The Administration justifies these changes stating that “current fees do not recover the full costs of provided adjudication and naturalization services.” The Federal Register announcement elaborates saying that USCIS’s operating budget necessitates the fee increases to ensure that USCIS has enough resources to carry out their duties.

Fee increases for naturalization are not unprecedented in the history of USCIS, but since the organization’s inception in 2003, the increases never exceeded $265 at one time. The $530 increase is unprecedented. 

The Administration rationalizes these drastic fee increases saying they are necessary to maintain the operations and services provided by USCIS. Yet, the rule that initiated these increases also proposed transfering $208 billion dollars from USCIS to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), more specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for increased enforcement operations. In December, the Administration narrowed the proposal to $112 million worth of transfers.

The administration is raising naturalization fees well beyond the rate of inflation to generate funds for ICE’s immigration removal operations – not to address the growing backlog in USCIS. These thinly veiled measures at best devalue naturalization in the United States and at worst make a full blown attack on the naturalization process.

Fee increases and the elimination of waivers by the Administration fail to acknowledge the need for an increase in the number of lawful permanent residents receiving citizenship. Naturalizing citizens brings countless economic and civic benefits for immigrants, their families, and the United States as a whole. Failing to encourage naturalization removes these benefits and hurts U.S. communities. 

Since its inception, the United States has built itself on the values of freedom, liberty, and equality. These values encouraged immigrants from around the world to come to the U.S. seeking a better life, whether for economic, political, or religious reasons. For the most part, the U.S. has invited immigrants throughout its history to live, work, and integrate into U.S. society. Lawful permanent residents have risen to the occasion and accepted that invitation. 

Naturalization not only upholds American values, it brings great economic benefits. Citizenship increases job security, yearly earnings, and home ownership. 

According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, naturalized citizens make between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens. Recently naturalized immigrants also enjoy faster wage increases, mostly because naturalization “increases immigrants’ representation in white-collar jobs.” Rather than working in construction or agriculture, these immigrants are more likely to work in finance, public administration, or the health sector. Naturalized citizens also saw a wage boost of about 5.6 percent directly related to their change in citizenship status. 

Naturalized citizens also have a great legacy of innovation and increased economic activity in the United States. For example, the founder of Google, Sergey Brin, became a naturalized citizen in 1979. Since Google’s inception in 1998, the company has not only created jobs and revenue, but established a lasting legacy of great technological innovation in the United States.

Naturalization benefits provide immigrants with the resources necessary for socio-economic mobility, including a 2.2 percent increase in employment and a 6.3 percent increase in home ownership, according to a NALEO report. Citizenship also brings lower poverty rates. MPI states that naturalized citizens are half as likely to live in poverty as their noncitizen counterparts. 

These economic benefits enable immigrants to integrate more fully into society, but citizenship also provides civic integration. Citizenship brings increased civic participation through the right to vote and the ability to serve on juries. NALEO claims Latino and Asian naturalized citizens vote at “notably higher rates” than native born U.S. citizens. 

Based on these benefits, it seems obvious that U.S. policy agendas should support a robust and efficient system to naturalize lawful permanent residents. However, current executive policy proves the opposite to be true. 

The Administration’s increase in fees and elimination of waivers serves as an attack on naturalization. Any attack on naturalization is an attack on the U.S. economy and the U.S. way of life, and must be viewed as such.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Public Domain.