One priority for advocates in the New Americans Campaign is to find ways to reduce the burden of high naturalization application fees for low-income immigrants. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) already has taken a very positive step by making the process of applying for a fee waiver more rational and predictable.
The fee waiver, however, generally applies to immigrants who earn less than 150 percent of the federally determined poverty income. Immigrants who make a little more than that may still struggle to make ends meet and find that the naturalization fee is beyond their means.
On Thursday (Jan. 8), NAC partners participated in a webinar that included new research by Manuel Pastor and Jared Sanchez of the University of Southern California (USC) and Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress (CAP). This research shows that the number of low-income immigrants naturalizing is lagging that of immigrants with higher incomes.
The impact of high fees on applications is particularly noticeable among Mexican immigrants. As a percentage of all naturalization applications, those from Mexican nationals dropped after the fee increase of 2007.
The Obama administration recently committed to studying the feasibility of a partial fee waiver for persons making 150 percent to 200 percent of federal poverty income. According to the USC/CAP study, just over one million immigrants who are eligible to naturalize have incomes in this range. The study estimates that, if the naturalization application rate of this group were to rise to the average of immigrants making more than 250 percent of poverty income, there would be an additional 25,000 citizenship applications per year.
This latest study reinforces other research that links high fees with lower application rates among low-income immigrants. More must be done to halt a widening gap in citizenship application rates between low-income immigrants and those with higher incomes.
The New Americans Campaign is aggressively addressing the financial needs of aspiring citizens by increasing the number of fee waivers. Since 2011, the NAC has saved legal permanent residents $23.5 million in fee waivers and an additional $95.2 million in legal fees, resulting in a total savings of $118.7 million. The NAC will continue to press for changes and will continue to develop innovative ways to help immigrants with lower incomes become citizens.