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A recent proposal by the Trump administration to increase the cost of applying for U.S. citizenship will disproportionately affect low-income immigrants and could dissuade many green card holders from applying, immigration advocates say.
The proposed new rule, published on November 14 by the Federal Register with a month-long comment period, would raise the naturalization application fee for most eligible immigrants by more than 60 percent, from $725 to $1,170. It also would eliminate a fee waiver now available to low-income applicants.
The increase is one of a number of immigration-related fee hikes proposed. Others would charge asylum seekers for filing applications and work permits, and increase the cost of renewal for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, whose fate is currently being deliberated by the Supreme Court.
In a statement, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the increases were needed to support an “overextended system” with a deficit of more than $1 billion, but local immigration advocates argue the shortfall could be funded in other ways. They say the additional cost of applying for citizenship would present significant barriers for low-income green card holders since the higher fee is equivalent to roughly two weeks of pay for California workers making minimum wage.
“This is part of a coordinated and concerted effort to manipulate the immigration system and the naturalization system so that it becomes a system that favors the wealthy,” says Melissa Rodgers, director of programs at the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “It’s a vicious attack on vulnerable communities and it’s a vicious attack on communities of color who are going to be most affected by these changes.”
Rodgers estimated that up to one-third of the roughly 9 million people now eligible for naturalization could be priced out by the proposal. A 2018 study from Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab concluded that the current $725 fee already prevents a “considerable share” of low-income immigrants from applying for citizenship. The study also found that application rates for eligible, financially insecure immigrants increased by more than 40% when they were given vouchers that covered the cost of applying.
Maricela Gutiérrez,executive director of the San Jose-based immigrant rights nonprofit SIREN, says clients have expressed concern about the possibility of higher fees.
“Many of these clients have minimum wage jobs, they’re helping their children with college and book fees, and many of them live in rental units that are very expensive,” she says. “Every penny counts for these families. And another increase when they were putting away a certain amount of money for their applications will most likely delay when they can apply.”
Others noted that the changes could potentially limit the number of people who would apply for naturalization and vote in the 2020 presidential election. Richard Hobbs, an immigration attorney in San Jose, says many of his clients are interested in becoming citizens so they can vote — a possibility that could become less likely for those who can’t afford the higher costs of applying.
“I think it’s a very pointed policy to prevent immigrants from being able to vote,” he said.
Erica Hellerstein is a Mercury News reporter who is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.