Our nation is home to over 24 million foreign born non-citizens. 11 million are undocumented and currently have no pathway to citizenship. 13 million are here with documentation, and 9 million of them could become citizens but for the barriers of cost and English proficiency that stand in their way. These barriers limit the rights protecting immigrants and their families and depress immigrant earnings and their ability to contribute fully to our workforce and economy. New Americans work hard to integrate into our society, but the current system is perpetuating an American underclass, frozen out of our democracy.
We must take action by:
The goal of equality and full participation is enshrined in the founding documents of our nation. The Declaration of Independence begins with the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Our history has been one of continued struggle to make these words true, from the struggle to end slavery to the enfranchisement of women. Our democratic ideal is one person, one vote. However, current immigration laws and regulations have resulted in the staggering 24 million non-citizens living in the United States, unable to participate fully in our civic life. This is detrimental for these individuals, our nation, or the future of our democracy.
There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, working to support their families, paying taxes and contributing an estimated $8 billion a year into the Social Security Trust Fund, at risk of deportation and the destruction of their families. These individuals live and work in our nation without any voice in our democracy. It is shameful that our gridlocked political system is incapable of legislating a solution.
In addition, 13.3 million legal permanent residents (LPRs), commonly referred to as green card holders, can work and travel legally, they pay taxes, but they have no say in our democracy. Nearly 9 million of them are currently eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship but have not done so due to barriers including cost and English; only about 650,000 immigrants, or around 7 percent of those eligible, naturalize each year.
Immigrants are priced out of citizenship. This is due to significant naturalization fee increases between 2000 and 2008. In 2007 alone, the naturalization fee rose by 300 percent, and a drop off in application rates followed. These increases have disproportionately impacted Latinos and the working poor, the largest groups eligible to naturalize. The naturalization fee is cost prohibitive for Mexicans in particular. Of the 2.6 million Mexican immigrants currently eligible to naturalize, only about 100,000 do so each year. 32 percent of people eligible to become citizens are eligible for a fee waiver because they are under 150 percent of poverty. For a household of one, that means they earn less than $17,655 a year. Nearly one million people will be eligible for a proposed partial fee waiver for individuals living between 150-200 percent of poverty, a recent NPNA victory. But even for those well above the poverty threshold, recent research suggests that the naturalization fee, currently $680, is prohibitively high.
Other barriers include lack of English skills, inadequate information, and fear of failing the citizenship exam. Obtaining U.S. citizenship should not be a privilege limited to the wealthy and highly educated.
*Through the Task Force for New Americans, for which NPNA advocated, the Obama Administration launched Stand Stronger in September 2015. NPNA Executive Director Josh Hoyt is on the Steering Committee for this national naturalization push.
*After years of advocacy on this issue from NPNA and partner organizations, USCIS announced their partial fee waiver proposal in April 2016.