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The Price of Naturalization

August 23, 2017

In 2016, almost 753,000 immigrants had cause to celebrate as they entered the final stage of the naturalization process: the Naturalization Ceremony. [2] While becoming an official U.S citizen is a great accomplishment for many, countless more immigrants never get that far. Not because they do not desire citizenship, but because they cannot afford the price of naturalization.

Current State of Immigration and Naturalization

The immigration debate often centers around the number and types of people that America accepts into its immigration program. Recently, there have been calls from the Trump administration, among others, to drastically limit or end completely certain immigration programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or the refugee program. Despite multiple reports concluding that ending these programs would have a negative effect on the American economy (not to mention overhaul the employment systems in certain industries), the “America first” mentality continues to pervade the immigration debate.

One facet of immigration that receives little attention is the costs of naturalization. Cultural integration is often lauded as an essential component of immigration. However, the current fee structure to become a naturalized American citizen could restrict what types of people reach the naturalization stage of the immigration process, regardless of how culturally integrated those citizens may be.

Of the estimate 5.5 million immigrants who were eligible for naturalization in 2012, less than 10% took that next step towards citizenship. [3] For some, the financial burden of applying for naturalization is too high.

Currently, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is funded primarily by the fees charged to those applying for naturalization. [4] Each application costs $640 in filing fees and $85 for biometric data collection (ie. Fingerprinting). This does not include the costs of legal representation, English as a second language classes, naturalization workshops, or any other costs associated with moving to and become a citizen of a new country. For a family of four, naturalization application costs alone would amount to almost $3,000. Families making under 150% above the poverty line ($36,900 for a family of four) can apply for a USCIS application fee waiver. [5] However, because the average non-citizen yearly household income is about $40,000, filing for naturalization would amount to almost an entire month’s wages and the fee waiver would not apply. [6]

USCIS has raised its filing fees in the past to cope with its enormous backlog. In 2008, USCIS’ application fees increased by 80% (from 330 to $595), causing a sharp rise in applications immediately before and a decline in applications immediately after the increase took effect.
[7]

Image: Trends of documented immigration and naturalization 1980-2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons.Image: Trends of documented immigration and naturalization 1980-2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Naturalized Citizens Are Essential for the Health of the American Economy

Naturalized citizens are better educated than immigrants who have not become citizens and (in some circumstances) native born citizens. According to a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau information, in 2014, 34% of naturalized citizens ages 25 and older possessed a bachelor’s degree. [8] This compares to 23% of noncitizens and 30% of native born citizens.

According to the same analysis, naturalized citizens also had a higher median income than noncitizens and a higher median household income ($59,072/year) than both noncitizens ($40,085/year) and native born citizens ($54,565). [9]

It follows that the buying power of naturalized citizens plays a strong role in the health of the American economy. Just from being granted naturalized status, immigrants can see a more than 10% increase in income. [10] This generates more taxable salary and adds vigor to the economy.

Naturalized citizens add jobs to the economy. With a greater income, naturalized citizens are more likely to “be banked,” or to have access to savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans. In California alone, 89.8% of naturalized citizens were banked in 2014 compared to 61% of non-citizens. [11] Being banked grants citizens access to the financial advising and loans necessary to start new businesses, which in turn create more jobs.

Naturalized citizens are essential in keeping social security programs solvent. In 2014, 61% of naturalized citizens were ages 18 to 44 years old. [12] The media age of all naturalized citizens is 40 years. As baby boomers age, the average age of the American population continues to rise as well, putting a heavy burden on Social Security and Medicare. Non-citizens and naturalized citizens contribute significantly to social security funds. Through naturalization and the subsequent increase in wages, naturalized citizens could increase the fund by $2.03 billion in the 21 cities analyzed by the Urban Institute, giving much needed relief to the taxed social security system. [13]

It is unarguably beneficial for American businesses and for the economy to give more citizens access to affordable naturalization. Changing the USCIS fee structure to better account for differences in income would make the naturalization process more affordable for all. Simple changes like creating a graduated fee scale based on income, or instituting a fee repayment plan would be beneficial for the thousands of immigrants who are currently eligible for naturalization but choose not to proceed because of financial restrictions.

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions or position of her employer.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [1] Lienemann, David. 2013. November 15, 2013. Accessed August 15, 2017. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2013/11/15/vice-president-biden-celebrates-citizenship-king-center-naturalization-ceremony.
  [2] “What, Me Naturalize? Large Numbers of Legal Immigrants Opting Not to Become Citizens.” Fox News. FOX News Network, n.d. Web. 26 July 2017.
  [3] “Naturalization Fact Sheet.” USCIS. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2017.
  [4] “About Us.” USCIS. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2017.
  [5] “HHS Poverty Guidelines for Fee Waiver Request.” USCIS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2017.
  [6] Zong, Jie, and Jeanne Batalova. “Naturalization Trends in the United States.” Migrationpolicy.org. N.p., 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 26 July 2017.
  [7] CITIZENSHIP BEYOND REACH. Rep. National Council of La Raza, n.d. Web. <http://thehill.com/sites/default/files/nclr_citizenship_beyond_reach_0.pdf>.
  [8] Zong, Jie, and Jeanne Batalova. “Naturalization Trends in the United States.” Migrationpolicy.org. N.p., 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 26 July 2017.
  [9] Ibid
  [10] 27, 2017 July, and 2017 July 25. “Get the Facts: Five Ways Naturalized Citizens Contribute to the U.S. Economy.” AS/COA. N.p., 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 July 2017. <http://www.as-coa.org/articles/get-facts-five-ways-naturalized-citizens-contribute-us-economy>.
  [11] Enchautegui, María E., and Linda Giannarelli. The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities. Rep. Urban Institute, Dec. 2015. Web.
  [12] MOSSAAD, NADWA, and JAMES LEE. U.S. Naturalizations: 2014. Rep. DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Apr. 2016. Web.
  [13] Enchautegui, María E., and Linda Giannarelli. The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and Cities. Rep. Urban Institute, Dec. 2015. Web.

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