Fee Waivers for Citizenship Applications Harder to Get Under New Rule

Mirabel Bermudez, 44 and Jacqueline Castillo, 32 study for a citizenship test at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City, Calif on March 22, 2018. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Update Oct. 30, 2019, 10:20 a.m.:

Immigrant advocates and the city of Seattle filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco on Wednesday, in an attempt to block the Trump administration's plans to toughen the requirements for fee waivers for naturalization and other immigration applications.

Plaintiffs argue the changes were "arbitrary," and "will cripple the ability" of many eligible low-income immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Original story:

Low-income immigrants face a tougher road to fee exemption when applying for citizenship or green cards under a Trump administration rule issued Thursday. The move could prevent hundreds of thousands of eligible people — including more than 200,000 Californians — from becoming U.S. citizens, critics say.

Under the new policy, scheduled to go into effect December 2, applicants will no longer qualify for fee waivers based simply on the fact that they receive benefits, such as Medi-Cal or CalFresh food stamps.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will still exempt applicants from filing fees if they can prove financial hardship with other documents, including federal tax transcripts that must be requested from the Internal Revenue Service.

USCIS argues the receipt of food stamps and other federally funded programs should not be considered in fee waiver requests because the income levels used to decide people’s eligibility for public benefits "vary greatly" across the country.

When asked for more information about how much the income level for benefit eligibility differs from state to state, a spokeswoman with USCIS said they did not have that data.

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The agency, which waived a total of $294 million in fees in 2018, depends on revenue from fees to fund most of its operations.

USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli said the changes will make the process more fair.

“The revised fee waiver process will improve the integrity of the program and the quality and consistency of fee waiver approvals going forward,” said Cuccinelli. “Providing clear direction to agency adjudicators for more uniform determinations will help us to uphold our mission of efficiently and fairly adjudicating immigration requests.”

An application for a lawful permanent residence document, known as a green card, costs a total of $1,225, while an application for citizenship is $725.

Opponents said the change will be a barrier for low income immigrants.

“We strongly condemn the actions of the Trump administration. It's one more attempt to try to block access to U.S. citizenship for immigrants,” said Melissa Rodgers, director of programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “This rule has the practical effect of reserving access to U.S. citizenship for the wealthy, which is not aligned with the values of our country.”

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Receipt of public benefits is a straightforward and popular way for people to show they qualify for a fee waiver, said Rodgers. However, having to secure tax documents adds a layer of bureaucratic maneuvering that will prevent potential citizens from applying, she said.

“Your average American is not going around having to ask the IRS for tax transcripts,” said Rodgers, who leads the New Americans Campaign, which helps people apply for citizenship. “It goes against any concept of making it easy to navigate government.”

About 220,000 people in California who are eligible for citizenship will no longer be able to use their current enrollment in public benefits to qualify for a free application, according to researchers with the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University.

USCIS estimates fee waivers totaled about $370 million in 2017, and $344 million the year before.

Rodgers said her organization and others are planning to challenge the new rule in court.

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