Cost of citizenship application is barrier for many

$725 fee is a steep cost for many immigrants

About 30,000 people living in Boston are eligible for US citizenship. Nationwide, more than 9 million people are eligible to apply for American citizenship, and yet less than 10 percent of them apply each year. Why?

For far too many, the impediment is the $725 fee that US Citizenship and Immigration Services  charges to process citizenship applications. For someone who works at a minimum-wage job – which many immigrants do – the difficulty of paying this fee puts citizenship out of reach.

USCIS is considering changes to the citizenship application fees amid the worst inflation rates we’ve seen in decades. If nothing is done, addressing the financial barriers to citizenship will only get more urgent. Nonprofit leaders, myself included, must redouble our efforts to connect immigrants with financial and educational assistance by leveraging private and public sector partnerships in order to make citizenship more affordable and accessible.

A recent survey by the nonprofit One Percent for America found that citizenship application fees discourage many people from even beginning an application. Of those who do apply, 87 percent borrowed money to pay the fees, and two-thirds used high-interest credit cards or payday lenders. The affordability of the citizenship process has been largely overlooked in immigration policy debates, thereby leaving millions of immigrants unable to fully engage in our civic and economic life. Their exclusion weakens the fabric of democracy, and that impacts all of us.

Immigrants fuel the growth and well-being of our country in countless ways, including filling key labor gaps in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing. In fact, of the hundreds of people we helped last year at Project Citizenship through free legal services and other resources, 73 percent were frontline workers who carried us through the pandemic’s darkest hours. And it’s not just to our economic detriment to exclude lower-income immigrants from the citizenship process, it’s also a matter of social justice. Each year, 95 percent of the people we assist are people of color and 72 percent are living below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

One way we have sought to close this affordability gap is through leveraging our community partnerships. For example, we annually host Citizenship Day with the Boston’s Office for Immigrant Advancement and private sector sponsors, which is a free, one-day workshop that helps immigrants complete their citizenship applications while also raising awareness about the benefits of citizenship, eligibility, and resources.

In fact, since 2014, over  2,600 people were connected with legal and financial resources on Citizenship Day. This year, attendees were able to take advantage of One Percent for America’s new 1 percent loan to immigrants applying for citizenship that covers their application fees. As a result, 11 more people during that one event applied to be US citizens. One Percent for America loans exemplify a creative financing approach that can help increase naturalization rates because it is set up to be flexible and self-sustaining. Supporters from across the country are invited to lend or donate, and funds are recycled as borrowers pay back their loans, which allows additional loans to immigrants. It’s the kind of solution that works only when the private, public, and nonprofit sectors are aligned.

Immigrants who are ready and eligible to take the final step in their long journeys toward US citizenship deserve and need our collective support. Nonprofit leaders must advocate for the inclusion of immigrants of all incomes in the citizenship process, and we must lead the way for decision makers in both government and business to consider the impacts of citizenship costs on their companies and communities.

Immigrants are essential to our city’s economy, history and character. They continually refresh our daily lives with their energy, talent, and love for our country’s highest ideals. With millions of immigrants just one step away from achieving their American dreams, we have no more time to waste. We must start removing the financial barriers to citizenship now.

Mitra Shavarini is the executive director of Project Citizenship, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that seeks to increase rates of naturalization among immigrants to the US.