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Aspiring Citizens Get Court’s Reprieve on Scheduled Naturalization Fee Increase

An immigrant takes an oath of allegiance during a citizenship ceremony in Brooklyn, July 22, 2020.
An immigrant takes an oath of allegiance during a citizenship ceremony in Brooklyn, July 22, 2020.
USCIS Northeast Region/Twitter

A California court order blocking a planned 60% increase in citizenship fees has tens of thousands of immigrant New Yorkers breathing easier — while lawyers still urge submitting applications for naturalization ASAP.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that in readying a nearly $500 increase from the current $725 fee and other changes that had been set to go into effect on Friday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services failed to consider “the negative impact the rule will have on low-income immigrant populations.”

USCIS officials announced the new fee changes on July 31, asserting they were needed to recover operational costs and address a budget shortfall.

Law firms and citizenship assistance groups had been deluged with calls from nervous New Yorkers prior to the scheduled fee increase, which also would have eliminated waivers for many low-income residents, nearly doubled the price for green cards and brought a new charge for asylum-seekers.

The injunction allows more time for New Yorkers struggling to meet the deadline — and save up for the application. Some are hoping to gain citizenship in time to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“Although a small victory, it’s a big win for immigrants,” said Monique Francis, the deputy director of CUNY’s Citizenship Now!, a legal assistance program. “This gives many who learned about the increase late additional time still get the application in the door. More importantly, it gives those who were having difficulty getting their fee waiver documents extra time.”

Waivers can reduce or eliminate the cost of an application, depending on eligibility.

However, Francis noted, “It is still possible that this decision could get reversed,” via the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She urged those seeking citizenship to get their applications in promptly.

A USCIS spokesperson said that the agency was currently reviewing the ruling and had no further comment.

Rush to Apply

The plaintiffs, a coalition of immigrant-rights groups, had argued the new costs and the elimination of the waivers would disproportionately affect low-income people of color, deter people from seeking citizenship and dampen civic engagement.

New York City signed onto a brief in the case highlighting citizenship’s importance to cities and counties.

The case marked the second successful challenge to a Trump administration attempt to revise the fee waiver system. In December 2019, another California federal judge ruled against the agency’s proposal to stop granting waivers based on enrollment in public benefits programs such as food stamps.

New York advocates added that the planned fee increase, to nearly $1,200 per applicant, would have effectively served as a wealth test.

“Once word got out about the fee waiver [ending], it’s just been overwhelming. People want to become citizens,” said Allan Wernick, the director of Citizenship Now.

“Some people can’t afford it all. For the other people, they have to decide: Here we are in a pandemic, money is tight. Well, should I become a citizen or take out the family? I think that it’s going to be tough.”

One 35-year-old woman from Bangladesh who lives in Hollis, Queens, said she reached out to Queens Legal Services last month after hearing that the costs for naturalization were rising.

“For me, I need the fee waiver very badly,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She submitted her naturalization application last week.

“It would be hard for me to go back to my country and start from the beginning with my two kids, so I have to start everything in the U.S. Here, I already started my life.”

Waiver requests are currently accepted from aspiring citizens who have a household income of 150% or less than the poverty guideline, are experiencing a financial hardship like a medical emergency, or are receiving a means-tested public benefit such as food stamps or Social Security income.

Of the 185,813 fee waiver requests submitted last year, nearly 164,000 were granted, according to the USCIS.

The USCIS’ proposed changes would limit waivers to specified categories of applicants that include diplomats, people with temporary protected status and victims of human trafficking.

Surge in Citizenship

In the past decade, a growing number of New Yorkers have signed up to become citizens, with 57% of New York City’s immigrants naturalized as of 2018, up from 51% in 2008.

Between 2008 and 2018, the city added 200,000 naturalized citizens, bringing the total to about 1.8 million, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Some New Yorkers have waited more than two years to become citizens, according to estimates posted online by the USCIS. Many are still waiting.

In 2020 prior to the city’s March shutdown due to COVID-19, USCIS received 27,504 applications in local offices and counted more than 72,000 pending applications, periodic data shows.

During USCIS’s three-month shutdown due to the pandemic, more than 110,000 would-be Americans across the country waited to take the oath of allegiance, the final step in the lengthy citizenship process following a biometrics assessment, an interview and examinations testing English skills and civics knowledge.

USCIS offices reopened on June 4.

The oaths have now all been completed, a USCIS spokesperson said, adding that ceremonies now are limited to fewer people, are shorter in duration and include social distancing precautions. Local ceremonies are hosted at the USCIS office in Manhattan and are no longer being scheduled at the two federal courthouses in New York City.

Even before COVID, the process had been slowed. Multiple advocates told THE CITY that the time it takes to become a citizen has essentially doubled since President Donald Trump took office three years ago.

“They’ve taken numerous steps to systematically strangle access to citizenship and voting rights for immigrants that includes this proposed fee increase but also the skyrocketing backlog in citizenship apps and increased processing delays by USCIS,” said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition.

Wernick said that the Trump administration has “taken many steps to make the process as complicated and difficult” as possible prior to the pandemic, including adding more paperwork to the process.

Hoping to Cast a Ballot

Among the New Yorkers waiting their turn to be sworn in as citizens pledging to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” are those who had applied with the hopes they’d be eligible to vote in the November general election.

The injunction may allow residents in the last stages of the naturalization process the opportunity to still cast a ballot.

Malvin Brown, a 44-year-old originally from Jamaica who submitted his still-pending application last summer, said that one of the main reasons why he’d applied twice for citizenship was to exercise the right to vote. He was rejected the first time due to paperwork issues.

“I just want to be a citizen of this country, I live here. I pay my taxes, pay my dues, do the right thing. I’ve never been arrested, have problems with the law or anything. I just want to do the right thing,” said Brown, who works at Kennedy Airport as an office agent.

His interview is scheduled for Oct. 8, just over two weeks before the Board of Elections’ Oct. 24 deadline for new citizens to register in person to vote.

In-person citizenship interviews are still required, a requirement resulting in people “weighing their desires to be citizens against the public health crisis,” said Jessica Young, an immigration attorney at grassroots group Make The Road New York.

‘Questions and Uncertainties’

Immigration lawyers told THE CITY that they’re expediting naturalization application submissions in case the district court’s injunction gets reversed.

“There are lots of questions and uncertainties about the degree to which we can have confidence that applications postmarked after October 1 will still avoid the new USCIS fee increase,” said SooKyung Vitale, director of the Immigration Advocacy Project at Queens Legal Services.

Young said in an email that an appeal could winnow the injunction’s scope to states in the Ninth Circuit Court’s jurisdiction, which includes California, Oregon, Montana and Washington.

“So it’s possible that for the N.Y. area that the injunction here only lasts a few weeks.”

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