Some 9.2 million lawful permanent residents are qualified to become U.S. citizens, with many having been eligible for many years. But socioeconomic barriers like high application fees and language and educational requirements prevent some from taking the steps to naturalize.
“It’s a $725 fee for just one individual. And that’s just for the cost of the application. There could also be legal costs and others,” said Brenda Loya, chief operating officer of BlueHub Capital, a nonprofit that helps people finance citizenship application fees at 1% interest.
She said many people are dissuaded by that $725 fee — which has nearly tripled over the past 20 years and is going up again soon, per proposed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rules.
Except for federal citizenship fee waivers for certain qualifying low-income immigrants, naturalization support to improve access to citizenship comes from a patchwork of nonprofit organizations that rely on private donations and varying levels of government funding. For those without access to or knowledge of those services, becoming a citizen can be cost-prohibitive.
“Families make choices on where they spend their money. If times are tight, it’s possible that they won’t take the step,” Loya said.
Thirty-seven-year-old Jessica Mejia, a resident of Baytown, Texas, is in the process of becoming a citizen along with her mother. It includes filling out a 20-page form called the N-400.
“My American dream is to be a citizen, to be able to vote,” Mejia said in Spanish.
Like many others, Mejia’s long path to becoming a citizen started with tragedy.
“They killed my brother in Colombia,” said Mejia, who never imagined her own family would be impacted by violence, despite the country’s history of armed conflict.
She and her mom fled to the U.S. 11 years ago. Once in the U.S., she married and her husband sponsored her to get a green card.
Mejia and her mom are borrowing from BlueHub to cover the citizenship application fees, which they’ll pay back at around $50 a month each.
“You don’t even feel it. Fifty dollars is what you spend at a restaurant,” she said.
BlueHub’s program has financed roughly 600 loans so far. It’s one of many nonprofits across the country aimed at making naturalization more accessible.
In the Houston area — which is home to one of the largest citizenship-eligible populations in the country, roughly 300,000 people — a new effort by the nonprofit Houston Endowment seeks to beef up access to naturalization.
It’s creating a $1.5 million fund to provide direct citizenship fee assistance to Houstonians.
The Houston Endowment wants the area to surpass New York City’s 116,000 or so naturalizations per year, which is more than any other metro area in the country and more than four times the number in Houston.
New York has “been able to build a really coordinated network of service providers that includes the library system, City Council offices, law schools,” said Gislaine Williams, a program officer with the Houston Endowment. She added that New York also has a successful citizenship fee fund.
Beyond the direct benefits of citizenship, like the ability to vote and travel more freely, Williams said becoming a citizen can lead to greater financial freedom.
“People who become citizens are earning higher incomes, they have higher rates of homeownership,” she said.
University of Southern California research shows that the lawful permanent residents who are least likely to become citizens tend to be lower-income, less educated and less-English speaking.
Some may not be able to read or haven’t attended middle or high school, said Mariana Sanchez, a Houston-based advocate.
“They came to this country, they start working, but they never studied,“ Sanchez aid.
Sanchez’s organization, Bonding Against Adversity, provides citizenship classes to immigrants of all educational backgrounds and helps low-income immigrants get federal fee waivers. Aside from some exceptions, the citizenship test must be in English.
“Even if they had 0% of English, we bring them with us,” she said. “We have a pre-K class, bilingual 1, bilingual 2.”
An immigrant herself from Ecuador, she said she enjoys looking at the faces around her at citizenship ceremonies.
“Every time is a reminder that we did it. We succeeded. We worked hard and we made it,” she said.
And if all goes well with Jessica Mejia’s interview and she passes her citizenship test, she’ll take her oath of allegiance to the United States at a local ceremony and then celebrate.
“With a barbecue — something really American. Hot dogs and hamburgers,” she said.
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