Naturalization Benefits Everyone, But Immigrants Applying for Citizenship Face Challenges

By the end of this month, nearly 30,000 legal permanent residents will become United States citizens in more than 160 naturalization ceremonies across the country. As September 17th is both Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, it seems only fitting that the occasion is marked by welcoming new citizens to share in the unique rights, responsibilities, and opportunities offered by our nation. And a new report has confirmed that naturalization yields substantial economic benefits, not only to immigrants, but also to their surrounding communities and local governments. There are challenges faced by immigrants on the steps towards citizenship, however, that must be overcome if we as a country hope to share in their success. [See Citizenship and Immigration Services to Naturalize Over 27,000 New Citizens, by Michael Oleaga, Latin Post, 17.Sep.2014.]

The report examined data from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and found that naturalization increases an immigrant’s individual earning power by 8 to 11 percent. Over a ten-year period, this growth in wages would funnel more than $8.5 billion to the local and state economies of the three cities included in the study, including more than $1 billion in tax revenues. Immigrants with disabilities who lack a five-year work history would become eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits upon naturalization, thereby adding federal dollars to their local economy and boosting benefit programs. [See Citizenship – A Wise Investment for Cities, collaboratively produced by The Center for Popular Democracy, USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, and National Partnership for New Americans.]

With such obvious economic advantages to both immigrants and their surrounding communities, it would seem that virtually all eligible legal permanent residents in the United States would be eager to begin the citizenship process. But in reality, only about 700 thousand of the approximate 1.1 million eligible legal permanent residents choose to naturalize each year. The causes of this troubling trend are largely due to the pervasive problem of economic disparity in the immigrant community. Low-income immigrants comprise almost 52 percent of all legal permanent residents eligible for naturalization. Meanwhile, the cost of an application for citizenship increased from $225 in 2000 to $680 in 2008, and another fee increase is expected soon. The application fee, combined with other costs associated with naturalization, including preparation for English and civic tests, administrative assistance with paperwork, and legal fees, means that citizenship is simply financially prohibitive for many immigrants.

Fortunately, in many major metropolitan areas, the infrastructure exists to help immigrants bypass the roadblocks to naturalization. Volunteer-based community organizations can partner with existing city institutions, such as schools and libraries, to offer outreach programs and workshops, and a few large cities are already funding legal screening and application processing. As noted in the Wise Investment report, a recent experimental program in Maryland offered microloans to assist with application fees and resulted in a 100 percent repayment rate. By utilizing resources at the state and local level to assist immigrants in becoming citizens, we can send a message of inclusion to these valuable members of our community.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.