Investment in Citizenship Will Strengthen Country, Assist Promising Americans Currently Being Priced Out

Boston area advocates discuss new national report; call on Congress, U.S.C.I.S. to support "Green Card" holders pursuing dream of American citizenship

citizenshippresssmallFebruary 15, 2013 CHELSEA —"It's never been the intention of this country to give out citizenship to the highest bidder," said Juan Vega, Executive Director of Centro Latino. "But that's what it seems we're doing now."

Vega was speaking today as the host of a press event at Centro Latino highlighting a new report, Nurturing Naturalization: Could Lowering the Fee Help? Written by a team headed by Dr. Manuel Pastor, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, the report explores how the $680 naturalization fee has become a major barrier to applying for U.S. citizenship for legal immigrants in low-wage jobs. 

Zilda Castro and Juan Vega at today's press conference

According to original analysis in the “Nurturing Naturalization” report, “Fee increases trigger a dramatic decline in the naturalization of less educated (and likely lower income) immigrants, an increase in the number of years immigrants wait to become citizens, and a change in the national origin of the naturalizing population, in particular a relative reduction in those who were born in Mexico.” In addition, the report indicates:

  • The percentage of immigrants with less than a high school education becoming U.S. citizens has declined by 50% since 1996, from 30% of the total down to 15% currently. Most of the decline has come since 2007, when the cost of citizenship increased from $395 to $675.
  • The percentage of Mexican immigrants becoming U.S. citizens also declined dramatically, from a high of 24% of the total in 1996 to a current low of 13%. Again, most of the decline has come since the 2007 fee increase.
  • Working poor immigrants, those with less education and income, are deeply sensitive to price increases.
  • The significant increases in the cost of applying for U.S. citizenship — which cost only $95 as recently as 1997 — have resulted in a systemic barrier to U.S. citizenship for the working poor.

The local press conference included staff of community-based organizations with citizenship programs and two immigrants who found the fees difficult to surmount despite their relative success in life.

"Every month for over two years my husband and I tried to set aside money to become citizens," said Silvia Da Silva, a Brazilian immigrant living in Ashland. "We own a home and are raising three daughters. My husband has a business, and I work too. We think we owe it to this country to pay for the privilege of citizenship. But it cost the two of us $1,360. We eventually paid, but it is too much for many immigrant couples."

Despite being the successful owner of Ipanema Hair Salon in Cambridge, Brazilian immigrant Zilda Castro took 12 years to finally put together the money to pay the fees. "It was my hair salon clients who work at MAPS [the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers] who finally convinced me to get the money together and do it. They helped me a lot with the paperwork too.  I was so happy to become a citizen and cast my vote for president this year!"

John Rattigan, Citizenship Specialist of the Irish International Immigrant Center, also spoke about helping immigrants complete applications and, in a few cases, pay the fees, thanks to a small Boston fund originally established in the early 18th century to help Irish immigrants.

"It can help a few," Rattigan said. "But many more need relief if we want to encourage citizenship. It's the final step in an immigrant journey that helps everyone in Massachusetts, stabilizing the population and increasing our labor pool. It's a population we should work to cultivate."

Eva Millona, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, stressed the many ways that non-profit organizations try to help immigrants along the path to citizenship. "We are proud to act as co-chairs on the National Partnership for New Americans, which commissioned the report, and to work with the Partnership and with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative on providing citizenship clinics for those ready to apply. But we know from those clinics the tremendous barrier that the fees present for low-to-moderate income immigrants. We commend Director Mayorkas at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for his commitment to the population he serves. But we hope this report will help the government to recognize that the price of citizenship shouldn't be so high that it prevents the United States from reaping the rewards of that major, patriotic step toward integration."