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The costly pursuit of US citizenship

As a nation, we want people who own the American dream, not just rent it. And, as we all know, the difference between being an owner and a renter often comes down to price.

So it serves our national interest if the privilege of U.S. citizenship is within everyone’s grasp.

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Today, at the dawn of Immigrant Heritage Month, nearly nine million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are eligible for U.S. citizenship. But, according to the Department of Homeland Security, fewer than 800,000 have naturalized in each of the past five years.

We should ask why more LPRs are not taking the final step to citizenship. For many, a big reason is cost. 

To apply for naturalization costs $680 per person, not including the cost of legal representation. By the end of 2016, that amount is likely to rise to $725, part of an agency-wide average fee increase of 21 percent at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that the administration has proposed.

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The good news? USCIS simultaneously announced plans to expand the current fee waiver program for lower-income applicants. The agency’s proposal, a partial fee waiver for citizenship-eligible LPRs who earn between 150 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level, would put citizenship in closer reach for more aspiring Americans.

The administration estimates that more than a million people would become eligible for a 50 percent discount on the citizenship application. That’s a big step in the right direction, and it’s something for which the National Immigration Forum and our partners, including the New Americans Campaign, have been advocating.

But it affects only 12 percent of all citizenship-eligible LPRs.

More than half of those eligible for citizenship still would not qualify for any help and will face an even higher fee. This creates an even taller wall between an immigrant and their ownership of the American dream.

Options to make citizenship more affordable are not limited to broadening the range of those eligible for a partial or total fee waivers. Consider: Green card renewals cost $450. That’s $230 less than the current naturalization application fee. We should incentivize U.S. citizenship by making it more affordable to apply for naturalization than green card renewal.

But there are other options, too, including making citizenship more affordable for families, expanding the category of LPRs eligible for a fee discount to include more people for whom the fee is a barrier to naturalization, and pricing the application fee on a sliding scale.

Bottom line: We have to keep citizenship affordable.

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We also can help encourage citizenship by helping aspiring new Americans understand the benefits, the requirements, the process and that help is available — financial and otherwise. Our research has found that too many LPRs don’t know what it takes to become a citizen, much less the process.

Many believe the naturalization process is more difficult than it is in reality, and it also can help to clarify that the benefits include protection from deportation and the ability to travel freely and without limits.

In fact, clear and accessible information proves the case that citizenship is really as easy as 1-2-3.

By promoting naturalization, we develop a diverse citizenry fully invested in and contributing to all aspects of civic and economic life in the U.S. Good government means continued improvement of the immigration and naturalization process so the best and the brightest new Americans strengthen their families and contribute to our economy to the fullest extent possible.

According to a 2015 report by the Urban Institute, if all LPRs eligible to naturalize in the 21 cities the report examined did naturalize, their aggregate earnings could increase by a total of $5.7 billion. Naturalization of the citizenship-eligible LPRs in these cities also would increase the federal, state and city tax revenue by $2.03 billion.

Full ownership of the American dream is good for the U.S. and good for immigrants. Pricing people out of citizenship, and missing other opportunities to encourage this key step, undermines our national interest and puts us on a path where we fall short of our potential.

Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum. This op-ed was originally published in The Hill. 

For more information about the New Americans Campaign, go to newamericanscampaign.org.

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TAGS: Department of Homeland Security, fees for US naturalization, Immigrant Heritage Month, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), National Immigration Forum, naturalization fee waiver, New Americans Campaign, The Hill, U.S. citizenship, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), US naturalization
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