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Despite Obstacles, Immigrants Continue to Call America Home

September 15, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

New Citizen


September 17 is Citizenship Day, a time to take stock of the commitment immigrants make to their adopted country.  It is also a time to reflect on how we encourage (or don’t encourage) immigrants to become fully American.


On September 9, Public Agenda released a new survey to gauge how immigrants feel about their life in the U.S.  The new survey, A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Now Say About Life in America, asked 1,138 immigrants about (among other things) their attitude towards becoming citizens.  Of those who were not already citizens and are legal residents, 87 percent say they are either in the process of becoming citizens or that they plan to become citizens in the future.  The top reasons that immigrants gave on this survey for becoming citizens were: to have equal rights and responsibilities (80 percent) to have the right to vote (78 percent); to have better legal rights and protections (78 percent); to show a commitment and pride in being American (71 percent).


Public Agenda did a similar survey in 2002, and they note that since then, there has been an increase in immigrants who say that they want to become citizens in order to make it easier to bring other family members to the U.S.  This could be seen as a consequence of the increasingly long visa backlogs that have developed for the family members of permanent legal residents in an immigration system that has not been updated in two decades.


While immigrants in the 2009 survey (and others before it) show their eagerness to join our civic life, they face increasing barriers.  On September 11, the National Council of La Raza released a paper highlighting a sharp decrease in naturalization applications in recent months.  This decrease in citizenship applications is occurring in the context of the current economic crisis and a sharp increase in naturalization application fees.  From 2006-2007, the median income for non-citizens had dropped 7.3 percent and has not recovered.  In 2007, the fee for the naturalization application went from $330 to $595, on top of which there is an additional $80 charge for fingerprinting.


The concern is that, for low-income applicants, citizenship is being priced out of reach.  It is time to re-think how the immigration service agency is funded.  Currently, immigrants pay not just for the processing of their own application, but also for infrastructure improvements at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, the immigration service agency), some immigration enforcement functions, and the processing of the applications of other immigrants who are not charged a fee.


Piling all those costs on to individual applicants is a problem for the agency as well.  It derives almost all of its revenue from fees, and when immigrants can’t pay, USCIS must scramble to make adjustments to its budget.  According to the Associated Press, USCIS is expecting a shortfall of almost $300 million by the end of its Fiscal Year on September 30 due to the drop in naturalization and other immigration applications. 


The agency may be in another cycle of catching up with its work after a surge in fee revenue and then falling behind when fee revenue falls short.  It is time for a change in the way USCIS is funded.  (You can read more on the history of recent naturalization backlogs and efforts to catch up in this report.)


The Administration, in its budget request for next year, has begun to recognize the problem, and has asked Congress for appropriations to cover the cost of some of the expenses that immigrants now pay for, but that are not related to their applications.  The outcome of that request is still uncertain.  The House is willing to give the Administration much of what it asked for; the Senate very little.


Despite the increasing hardships, immigrants continue to overcome the obstacles and become Americans.  If you haven’t seen a ceremony where immigrants are sworn in as U.S. citizens, you might have your chance on September 17.  In honor of Citizenship Day, USCIS will conduct 73 special ceremonies from Camden, New Jersey, to Yosemite National Park, California.  On that day, 8,328 immigrants will take the Oath of Allegiance and join us in this great American experiment.


Phot by Flickr user Craig Martell.

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