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Advocates Rush to Challenge Changes that would Eliminate Obama-era Policy Allowing Fee Waivers for Elderly and Working Poor Immigrants Applying for Citizenship

WASHINGTON – A growing group of immigrant rights advocates is demanding that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) withdraw its proposed regulation cutting off access to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of eligible immigrants and condemning it as a un-American measure that would target elderly and working poor immigrants.

The regulation would reverse a policy enacted by the Obama administration, whereby an applicant for citizenship can apply for a fee waiver if they are unable to afford the expensive fee of $725, among other applications and their fees. Under current policy, one way to show this inability to pay is through an applicants’ use of a means-tested public benefit (like SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, and TANF). The proposed regulation would make that use of public benefits no longer a sufficient reason for receiving a fee waiver, effectively blocking over 244,000 eligible immigrants from citizenship because they simply cannot afford it.

“Encouraging citizenship is part of our tradition of welcoming immigrant communities. By excluding people from citizenship based on their level of wealth or class, the Trump administration is once again undermining our national values of equal treatment and diversity,” said Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA.  

The National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) and others fought for the fee waiver policy during the Obama administration and won in 2010. Since then, well over a million immigrants applied for the fee waiver in conjunction with their citizenship application. In 2017 alone, around 370,000 applicants for citizenship requested a fee waiver.

The proposed regulation would make it more difficult for eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which, according to new data released by the agency in late October, currently has a backlog of over 750,000 citizenship applications.

“Our country derives many social and economic benefits from having eligible permanent residents become U.S. citizens and the administration should be encouraging as many eligible permanent residents to take this important step. Instead, it appears that the administration is doing whatever it can to push naturalization out of the reach of a great many applicants. If this proposed rule went into effect it would disproportionately impact people of color and low-income applicants from filing for citizenship because it raises documentation barriers that are hard to overcome,” said Laura Vasquez, Senior Program Manager for Immigration Initiatives at UnidosUS.

The proposed change comes amidst other criticisms that advocates have leveled against the agency, including for it dedicating unprecedented levels of resources to denaturalizing citizens and expanding its enforcement role as part of the Trump administration’s broader policies against immigrants, including those with legal status.

“The proposed fee waiver regulation would be another brick in Trump’s second wall of barriers against eligible immigrants applying for citizenship. This constitutes another unconscionable and cruel attempt to exclude working-class immigrants and low-income families,” said Josh Hoyt, Executive Director of NPNA.

NPNA, which sued USCIS over the backlog of citizenship applications in September, alleging inefficient leadership and/or voter suppression, works to encourage eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship, citing the positive impact that it has on newly naturalized citizens’ educational and job prospects and their collective political power. NPNA and its member organizations are encouraging individuals and organizations to submit comments in opposition to the proposed regulation, recognizing that one of the largest deterring factors to the over 8 million eligible immigrants applying for citizenship is the cost of application fees.

“We condemn this, the newest attack by the Trump Administration, unleashed against immigrant communities.   From the proposed regulation on public charge to a proposed regulation on fee waivers, the latter being a devastating blow for thousands and thousands of eligible working families, this is simply one more barrier to citizenship courtesy of a wicked Trump Administration,” stated Angelica Salas, Executive Committee member of NPNA and Executive Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.

The regulation was formally proposed by DHS on September 28 and is now subject to the 60-day public comment period, which ends on November 27.

“This proposed fee waiver regulation is another attack against the immigrant community and insult to immigrants who’ve endured long-suffering to obtain American citizenship. Sacrificing to contribute to our nation should be commended, not punished. We’ve seen this administration prey on the poor, and especially hard-working immigrants, through a number of ill-devised regulations and there must be an end point to this; upward mobility is a bastion of the American Dream and it’s un-American to price out immigrants by making citizenship unaffordable. We call on Congress, especially our newly elected leaders, to defend immigrants and publicly reject the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant crusade,” said Ben Monterroso, Executive Director of Mi Familia Vota.

Immigrant rights advocates will be discussing how to respond to this proposed regulation, among other anti-immigrant policies, at the National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC), taking place in Arlington, VA. Dec. 9-11. The NIIC is the largest conference of its kind in the United States and gives immigration and refugee advocates, policy experts, government officials and community leaders an opportunity to connect, learn from each other, strategize and power their work forward. More than 1,200 experts from across the country are expected to attend the three-day event.