By Bill Parry
Nearly 670,000 New Yorkers are eligible to apply for citizenship, but the costs have spiked so high that immigrants may no longer be able to afford becoming full-fledged Americans, the city comptroller has warned.
The citizen application fees have soared nearly 500 percent since 1989, after adjusting for inflation, from $68 to $680 today, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer. In addition, the city recently cut back on adult literacy programs and now provide only limited access to affordable legal services.
These barriers to citizenship are among the findings in a new report from Stringer released last week.
“With costs that can reach into the thousands of dollars, our citizenship process has become too expensive for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” Stringer said. “High fees and diminished access to English instruction and affordable legal services are throwing up roadblocks to naturalization for this generation of immigrants. Becoming a citizen is an integral part of the American experience. Every New Yorker deserves a fair and fighting chance to make it in this city and it’s the job of government to break down barriers to help those who have lived and worked here to make citizenship an attainable goal.”
Low-income immigrants are currently offered free waivers for the paperwork costs, but the waiver process is “plagued by problems,” according to Stringer. In 2011, only 23,000 fee waivers for naturalization were granted out of a total of 756,000 applications, just over 3 percent.
Applicants must pass a language-proficiency test, but English language classes cost around $400 per week for group lessons. Although the New York Public Library expanded seats for free English classes by 300 percent over the last three years, the report said, several branches have reported having to turn away applicants, unable to meet the high demand.
Many immigrants seek legal advice from immigration lawyers during the naturalization process. In New York City, immigration law firms charge between $100 and $300 for a one-time consultation and an additional $1,200 to $1,500 for help filling out the relevant paperwork and preparing the application package, according to the report.
Stringer’s report makes a series of recommendations that are designed to combat the high cost of citizenship.
He called on the federal government to dedicate additional resources to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s budget, with an eye toward reducing or even eliminating application fees for naturalization.
Stringer also believes the federal government should improve the waiver process and study alternative payment options.
He wants the city to offer more on-site citizenship assistance programs in industries with large immigrant populations;,increase funding for English as a Second Language and civics classes, and partner with law schools to expand free legal services for immigrants as well as other suggestions.
“Whether it’s creating public-private partnerships to offer on-site assistance or re-examining the structure and amount of fees, government must take steps to encourage everyone who can gain their citizenship,” Stringer said. “For decades, hardworking immigrants have come here to build a new life and become part of the fabric of our communities, Now is the time to rethink how city, state and federal governments support this vital process.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr