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Barriers Inhibit Legal Road to U.S. Citizenship

by Shreema Mehta

As a debate rages over illegal immigration, activists representing documented immigrants say the naturalization process is arduous, expensive and slow – and it’s about to get harder.

Nov. 15, 2006 – Missing from much of the debate over immigration is attention to the increasing obstacles faced by immigrants applying for citizenship. The federal government has announced three upcoming proposals that immigrant advocates say will hamper efforts by legal residents to obtain US citizenship.

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In the next few weeks, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) plants to propose a yet-to-be determined increase to the current $400 naturalization application fee, according to spokesperson Chris Bentley. By next year, the agency says, the USCIS will finalize and pilot-test a revised naturalization exam; in coming years, it plans to implement an online application for citizenship.

Immigrant advocates say these changes will lead to further barriers to immigrants seeking citizenship, especially those with lower incomes. They point out that the changes come at a time when threats to immigrants’ civil rights and laws targeting immigrants make obtaining citizenship – and the right to influence policy decisions through voting – all the more pressing.

According to USCIS, more than 600,000 people applied for citizenship last year.

Bentley said USCIS is proposing a fee increase because the current fee is not covering the cost of processing applications. The naturalization fees are the sole source of funds for processing citizenship requests.

Although the new fee has not been determined, Bentley estimated the increase may be around 75 percent. But immigrant advocates said that the application fee is already too high, and that increases unfairly burden lower-income applicants. While fee waivers are available, very few immigrants qualify for them.

Stanley Mark, program director of the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), said the current "political climate," where non-citizens are being monitored and detained, makes becoming a citizen more important than ever.

"[The USCIS] should be doing something for people who are poor," he said, rather than raising barriers for low-income immigrants to become citizens.

While he supports a fee-based system, Mark said relying on fees alone imposes a burden on immigrants that discourages them from applying for naturalization. Costs for security checks could be shifted to other Homeland Security agencies, he said, adding, "more citizenship and civic participation should be promoted."

Bentley said plans to create an electronic application can reduce the number of forms citizenship applicants need to fill out, but immigrants’ advocates say it will impose an additional barrier for those who do not have computer access.

The agency also seeks to revise the natualization exam, replacing "trivia-based" questions such as "What are the colors of the flag?" with "Name one of the liberties granted by the Constitution." As the USCIS sees it, "studying and learning the material for [the current] citizenshp exam is not preparing the citizens for what they will need to know to take advantage of their responsibilities," Bentley said.

In the process of revising the test, Mark of AALDEF worries the federal government will make it more difficult without acknowledging the need for and supporting English and civics classes that can help enable immigrants to comply with the raised standards. Mark helps run an AALDEF program that assists New York-area Asian immigrants in filling out citizenship applications and studying for the exam.

Mark said the federal government is requiring immigrants to adjust to the English language and American culture without supporting measures to help immigrants make these adjustments. "If you believe in assimilation, you have to put the budget in to make it happen," he said. Otherwise, Mark said the test can unfairly disqualify many applicants.

Immigrants applying for citizenship must also often face bureaucratic delays on their applications, though the USCIS has made efforts to minimize waiting periods. In September, the agency announced it reduced its backlog on completed naturalization applications, naturalizing hundreds of thousands of immigrants who completed their applications and were awaiting their citizenship notice. The USCIS said it had cut processing time from a high of fourteen months to approximately five months.

At the time, however, there were still almost 1.1 million applications awaiting approval, security checks, test retakes, judicial ceremony schedules or corrections.

Some immigrant advocates say security checks have recently caused long delays for people who passed their naturalization exams, particularly for Muslim immigrants.

The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations recently announced its intention to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf on Muslim males waiting more than four months to earn citizenship status after passing the exam.

Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said his organization is campaigning against naturalization barriers to help provide immigrants with the protections citizenship affords. Besides the right to vote, citizenship allows them to hold federal jobs and makes it easier to bring their family members to the country.

Naturalization also protects against deportation. "You never know when the law is going to change again," said Tsao. "Something innocent before can be grounds for deportation in the future. Citizenship is a bulwark against that imposition by the federal government."

He noted the timing of the new proposals, emerging as the country is clamping down on immigrants. "Just as the federal government wants to set up the first wall [on the US-Mexico border], Homeland Security wants to set up a second wall, keeping out legal immigrants from citizenship and excluding them from the body politic," Tsao said.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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