The barriers for U.S. citizenship are largely immeasurable — from immigrants traveling thousands of miles by foot to apply for asylum, to folks applying for citizenship after moving to the country for work. But one barrier is universal: expense.
Today, it costs $725 for legal permanent residents to simply apply for U.S. citizenship. In 1989, it was just $60. So, on June 13, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and California Representative Norma Torres introduced a bill that could change that.
The plan, called the Citizenship Affordability Act, would eliminate application fees entirely for people who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($24,280 annually for a family of one) and would reduce fees for people who earn 200-250 percent of the federal poverty line ($24,280 to $30,350 annually for a family of one). The bill currently has only Democratic co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate, and it would likely need Republican co-sponsorship in order to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate. However, this kind of legislation could serve as a template for future legislation that would decrease the burden on immigrants if Democrats gain control of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2020.
For Rep. Torres, the fight is personal: She was born in Guatemala and when she was five years old, she and her family moved to the U.S.
“For minor children, when your parents file for legal status, there's a box that parents can check for their minor children to also become citizens, but there's a fee associated with that. My father could not afford to pay for that for me. So, when I [turned] 18, I wasn't automatically a citizen,” she told MTV News. She had to take a test and apply for citizenship because the cost was too high for her father to pay for her citizenship when she first arrived in the country.
“I had to actually apply for citizenship as an adult... I grew up in this country. I don't know Guatemala. This is my community,” she added.
As the law currently stands, there are a few ways someone can reduce the cost of applying for citizenship: the fee is waived entirely for someone who earns less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about $18,210 for a single person per year; if you earn between 150 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty line, between $18,210 and $24,280 annually, your fee is cut from $725 to $405. That’s not good enough, according to lawmakers.
“It's just such a high fee,” Sen. Menendez told MTV News. “Making it more difficult [for someone to become a citizen] is not what we should be doing. Making it more possible for people who want to become a citizen — and we want to become a citizen — to be able to become a citizen is what we should be doing.”
“Becoming an American citizen should not depend on whether or not you can afford a costly application fee,” he added in a press release announcing the bill.
But opponents to the bill say that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has to collect fees — in fact, since the USCIS doesn’t receive much direct governmental support or appropriations, fees are the way it earns most of its money.
“When this agency waives fees, it’s hurtful to the quality of the agency and it pushes fees off from one population to another,” David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization which advocates for reduced immigration, told United Press International. “If you can’t get fees from group A, then you have to run up the fees for groups B, C, and D. So there is a reason to be careful with waivers.”
Torres doesn’t think that profitability for the USCIS should even be a question when we’re considering citizenship, though.
“I don't think that we should be looking at [how we can] profit from people that are going through the process of becoming citizens,” Torres said. “I absolutely think that those who have the means and can afford to pay for the full fee should do that. But for the poorest in our communities, why not help them become full-fledged citizens?”
Menendez agrees. “Citizenship promotes integration, civic responsibility, and a sense of community, which ultimately benefits all Americans,” he said in the press release. “Yet for too many aspiring Americans, the cost of naturalization is a significant barrier to becoming a citizen.”
Menendez added to MTV News that the hefty price tag for citizenship doesn’t even include the cost of transportation to the testing center, the materials needed for the test, or the time taken off of work, which many legal permanent residents simply cannot afford.
“The reality is that we have a movement by this administration to make it even more difficult to ultimately get a waiver,” Menendez said, adding: “I want to move in a different direction from this administration which is all about making it harder to become a citizen, not easier.”