Price of Citizenship Goes Up – Literally

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During the last full week of July, many of the city’s newest residents flooded offices of immigrant-aid organizations in every borough in a scramble to file applications for citizenship before today, when a major fee hike goes into effect nationwide.

The new fees, representing an average 66 percent raise over previous charges, affect a long list of immigrant status petitions, including those pertaining to work permits, child adoption, citizenship status and permanent residency (the “green card”). Whereas last week it cost $400 to file an application to obtain citizenship, as of today it will cost $675. Application fees for green cards have risen from $325 to $1,010. A “petition by entrepreneur to remove conditions on residence” has the distinction of being the highest fee: at $2,930, it’s more than five times the former fee of $555. These are simply the application fees – they don’t guarantee acceptance.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, says the fee increases are necessary to maintain the agency – which is entirely fee-supported – and improve its services. The projected additional $1 billion in revenue will be used to buy computers, hire an extra 1,500 immigration officers, and decrease the processing time for applications. The agency has also said it will waive fees for certain applicants, such as those seeking asylum in the U.S., thus mitigating the overall impact of rising prices.

Though the fee increases are not a surprise – the USCIS has instated small fee hikes over the last several years, and opened these proposed increases to a public comment period – the size of this latest hike was unexpected.

At CUNY’s Flushing Immigration Center in Queens, which offers free advice on immigration issues, clients filled the waiting room Thursday. The chairs in the small office quickly filled with elderly clients, while younger people and their children stood waiting or passed the time playing with toy American flags. Children chatted in English as their parents and grandparents looked skeptically at the forms they would have to fill out and carried on conversations in Chinese, Korean and Spanish. Immigration advisors skipped lunch and extended the workday to meet demand. Like many other organizations that help immigrants file naturalization and resident applications, the center in Flushing also extended services over the weekend.

Susan Chong, a paralegal at the center, said the office has handled 350 cases in the last month – 20 percent more than the month before. Stan Mark, program director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) said his client intake has more than doubled in the last month. The pressure to beat the fee deadline has not only strained the staff, but has also taken an emotional toll on the applicants.

“This is a lot more personal than a lot of people might think,” said Rafael Dominguez, an immigration advisor at the Flushing center. Dominguez said that within the last week, he’s seen clients cry in the waiting room when no more appointments were available.

“There’s a surge in people applying, not because they’re coming across the funds, but they’re giving up necessities because they realize they’ve been sitting on applications and the fees are about to go up,” said Bryan Pu-Folkes, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights.

But even some who were able to score last-minute appointments still won’t be able to complete their applications on time, as they realize that documents need signatures from, or photos of, relatives in other countries.

One such applicant, Carolina Hermina Torres, came to the center hoping to beat the fee hike deadline, only to find that without her husband’s signature, passport photo, and an English translation of their marriage certificate, the application for her husband’s citizenship would not be considered complete. But her husband is in Ecuador – so Torres did not meet today’s deadline and must pay the higher fee.

This is no small problem. Torres’ monthly income amounts to $660, which is $15 shy of the application cost. She said she spends half her income on rent, and half on food and medical bills.

She knows others with less, though, and said that with the fee increases “the majority of them won’t [apply] because they can’t come up with that kind of money.”

In New York state, 51 percent of all foreign-born residents who are full-time workers earn $35,000 or less a year, according to the 2005 American Community Survey. (Among native-born New York state residents, it’s 36 percent.)

Mark, of AALDEF, thinks that although many New York City immigrants may be low-income and at a disadvantage when confronted with these fees, they will continue to apply. “Because of the recent debate in Congress and strong anti-immigrant feeling, there is desperation and a real urgency for people to apply for green cards and citizenship,” Mark said. Applicants “will borrow, they’ll go into debt, whatever it takes.”

Along with fears that applicants will forego necessities in order to pay the fees, or simply will be disenfranchised by the costs, are concerns that these increased costs will make other parts of the process more expensive, too.

“It’s going to have an impact on what it costs to actually have a lawyer assist you in your application,” said Pu-Folkes. While nonprofits can usually help people completing basic citizenship applications for little or no money, lawyers are increasingly necessary for those whose applications have a variety of complications.

The result may be that people simply wait longer before they apply as they try to meet the costs. Julissa Ferreras, director of civic education at the New York office of the National Association of Latino and Elected and Appointed Officials, thinks this will be the case, and worries it will affect the voter pool in 2008. “But we hope they [immigrants] remain mobilized. The same passion for involvement is still there,” she said.

– Anna Phillips