Public Comment Opportunity: US Citizenship Application Fee Waiver

Below is language from what The Praxis Project will submit as our public comment for a federal policy proposal impacting immigrants. Please feel free to borrow and add your own unique voice from the non-italicized language below, to submit your comment HERE before the May 6th deadline.

This proposal would significantly affect vulnerable populations’ health and welfare and as such presents an important opportunity for us to share our perspectives. If you or someone you know could be impacted by these policies, we encourage you to share what you expect would be the consequences of this policy for you and your family or community.

Background: Low-income immigrants who use a means-tested public benefit (such as food stamps or supplemental security income/SSI) are currently only required to show proof of their benefit to qualify for a reduced cost of applying for US citizenship. The proposed rule would require some other documentation - like a federal tax transcript - in order to prove their eligibility for a fee waiver.

This change contains no remedy for those who are not required to file income taxes (such as retirees, students, individuals on SSI) on how they could prove their low-income status to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The Praxis Project submits this public comment in opposition to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposal to prohibit eligibility for a U.S. citizenship application fee waiver based on an individual’s receiving a means-tested public benefit, OMB Control Number 1615-0116, Docket ID USCIS-2010-0008, published in the Federal Register on September 28, 2018.

As one of the nation’s leading health justice and racial justice advocates, The Praxis Project opposes this proposed change because it poses significant risks to health and safety for individuals and families. Based on the experiences of our communities, we are concerned that this ham fisted proposal would make it extremely difficult for low income immigrants to become citizens based upon their use of public benefits, including in the case of mixed-status families. Our perspective is informed through interactions with our many base-building grassroots partners around the United States, who are committed to a just immigration climate. In fact, among our network, a just immigration climate is a top social determinant of health for which our base-building partners are advocating and organizing. Our base-building partners strive to keep families together by supporting pathways to citizenship. We are concerned that the proposed rule would diminish these efforts by separating families.

Nearly 250,000 people applying to United States citizenship cannot submit the proposed alternative - a tax return receipt - because not everyone is required to file a federal tax return. Moreover, application fees are a significant barrier for applicants who rely on benefits to help support themselves and their families. In the last 20 years, the naturalization fee has increased by 600% and now costs $725 to apply. This has already priced out vulnerable members of our communities, including domestic violence survivors and the elderly. Of the approximately 750,000 applicants who naturalized in 2017, one in three applied for the fee waiver through proof of a means-tested public benefit. Without an accessible fee waiver option, many low-income immigrants and other vulnerable immigrant populations will be unable to go through the naturalization process.

This proposal would have a chilling effect on naturalization by further burdening already-constrained low-income applicants, particularly those who are limited-English proficient (LEP), elderly, or have limited access to a computer or internet. It places a greater time and resource burden on low-income individuals, thereby discouraging otherwise eligible individuals from applying for naturalization and worsening instead of rectifying inequities. This proposed rule would therefore have a disproportionate and unfair consequence of thwarting the naturalization of low-income immigrants versus higher-income immigrants.

Already-under-resourced community based organizations that work with applicants seeking U.S. citizenship - including some of our grassroots partners - will also face even greater challenges in helping people advance through the process. With the proposed changes to the fee waiver form, it will become harder for legal service providers to complete citizenship applications in the workshop setting due to needing multiple steps to obtain the forms that would be required under the rule change. Organizations will be forced to change their service delivery models, effectively reducing the number of people they can serve, and increasing the time it takes to complete the naturalization process - which already takes years, even with the help of lawyers.

In response to Congress’s request for accountability, USCIS itself in February 2019 has admitted that its own policies including additional interview requirements have contributed to the agency’s ‘crisis-level of processing delays.’ The proposed rule will add an additional unnecessary step to the already extensive naturalization process that will disproportionately burden low-income applicants.

Immigrants who rely on public benefits that they are eligible for, do so in order to achieve well-being and economic stability that enables children and families to live, learn and work. In particular, women, families, the elderly and the disabled are the people especially depend on benefits to support themselves and their families. They would be adversely impacted if their use of benefits for which they are eligible, slowed down or compromised their ability to obtain citizenship.

It takes years of perseverance and dedication to take steps towards naturalization. Barring individuals from applying for citizenship due to their use of public benefits would exclude eligible immigrants from becoming citizens solely based on their wealth and class status. A person’s value and worth is measured in more than just the amount they have in their bank accounts.  We urge you to uphold our nation’s values of equal opportunity to a shared prosperity by rescinding this proposal.