NYC Comptroller Stringer Proposes Fund to Ease Burden of Citizenship Application Fees

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Stringer. Photo: William Alatriste-Flickr

With the Trump Administration ratcheting up its attacks on immigrant communities, including more frequent raids, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer today called for the creation of a public-private New York City Citizenship Fund to help tens of thousands of legal immigrants cover the ever-rising costs of the federal application to become a U.S. citizen.

Stringer also sent a letter to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to jumpstart a conversation around launching a new City-run fund aimed at supporting citizenship. As the federal government continues its immigration crack-downs, the benefits of becoming a citizen for legal residents are perhaps greater than at any time in recent history.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is the dream of many immigrants in New York, but between application costs, legal fees, English classes and more, total costs can run in the thousands of dollars. In the most expensive city in the country, the application fee alone – up 500 percent since 1989 to $725 today – creates a barrier for low- and middle-income immigrants.

To ensure that more of the 670,000 eligible-to-naturalize immigrants in New York City can afford to apply for citizenship, the new public-private fund proposed by Stringer would offset the costs of citizenship applications for residents with incomes between 150 percent and 300 percent of the poverty line, or incomes of less than $61,260 per year for a family of three. These low-and moderate-income immigrants do not currently fully benefit from existing federal and state fee reduction programs.

The Comptroller’s Office estimates that approximately 180,000 New York City immigrants live within 150 and 300 percent of the poverty line and would be potentially eligible for the program. The fund would use City dollars to cover the costs of the first 35,000 New Yorkers who apply, at an estimated price-tag of just $20.7 million.

Data show that the high cost of citizenship serves as a monetary barrier to naturalization:

The need is large: More than 670,000 New Yorkers – over 20 percent of the city’s immigrant population – are eligible for naturalization, but have not taken the final step to citizenship.

Costs are soaring: Including biometric fees, the fees associated with the naturalization form have increased from $60 in 1989 to $725 today, an increase of 500 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Price matters: After it was announced that the form-filing fee would be increased from $400 to $675 at the beginning of FY2008, the number of citizenship applications surged 89 percent from the year prior. After that price increase took effect, applications plummeted again by more than half.

“No family should have to choose between applying for citizenship and putting food on the table. Now, more than ever, we need to embrace bold, innovative strategies to protect our immigrant communities. If we want to fight back against President Trump, this is a smart, commonsense, policy-driven strategy that all New Yorkers can help to support. Immigrants make our city run—that’s who we are and who we’ll always be. President Trump is trying to take us backwards, and we have a moral, economic, and social imperative to keep New York a place that welcomes all. The more people we help become citizens, the better off we’ll be,” Stringer, said. “Immigrants are being targeted. Families are fearful. And new policies from Washington are eroding American values. This Fund will help give low- and moderate-income immigrants not just a fair shot to become citizens, but also give all New Yorkers a chance to help.”

Stringer wrote to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal to introduce the proposal for a Citizenship Fund, which would be administered by the City as a 501(c)(3), akin to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City or the Fund for Public Schools. A modest initial investment by the City into the fund could then leverage additional private, charitable funds from those interested in helping their fellow New Yorkers become citizens. The letter to Commissioner Agarwal can be found here.

Last year, the Comptroller released a report on the contributions that immigrants make to the economy. That analysis showed that nearly half of the City’s workforce are immigrants who, collectively, earn $100 billion annually in wages and 32 percent of total earnings in New York City.

The many benefits to becoming a U.S. citizen include: Immigrants who naturalize are likely to see an increase in wages, in part because some government jobs and many government contractor jobs are reserved for U.S. citizens. That means a Citizenship Fund could help boost future tax revenues to the City.

Citizens are able to travel more easily, petition for family members to immigrate to the United States, and do not have to fear removal or family separation.

In addition, these individuals – many of whom have been living and working in the United States for years – are able to participate in civic life in ways that noncitizens cannot, including gaining the right to vote;

Newly naturalized citizens almost uniformly report other important, if intangible benefits: a stronger feeling of “belonging,” greater security when traveling with the protection of a U.S. passport, and a powerful sense of patriotism.

"Immigrants are the proudest part of New York's history, and must continue to be a part of our future," said State Senator Daniel Squadron. "As the Trump Administration embraces xenophobia, fear, and hatred, New York must stand as the welcoming beacon of opportunity it has long been. For too many, financial challenges add yet another hurdle to making a life here -- I thank Comptroller Stringer for putting forward creative proposals to help protect opportunity."

Several leaders of immigrants and immigrants' rights groups endorsed the proposal.

"I commend Comptroller Stringer for advocating to ease the financial burden around gaining citizenship,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “As our federal government claws back protections for immigrants, it is critical that we examine creative solutions to support our immigrant communities here in New York. I look forward to working with advocates, my colleagues and Comptroller Stringer to protect immigrants in our City and State."

"The NYIC is committed to ensuring that all eligible New Yorkers become US Citizens as soon as they want to. One of the most frequent reasons we are given for why New Yorkers don't apply are financial. We commend the Comptroller for calling on the creation of a public private partnership to support New Yorkers through this critical step. The benefits of citizenship are well established and we urge the Mayor to take this recommendation seriously and to act on it in this year's budget." said Steven Choi, executive director, New York Immigration Coalition.

“The NYC Citizenship Fund is an important effort to insure that all qualified permanent residents can naturalize,” said Allan Wernick, Director CUNY Citizenship Now!.  “Citizenship is a privilege, but also a right.  No one should be denied that right because they can’t afford the fee,” he said. 

“Too often, the dream of citizenship has been out of reach for New Yorkers simply because the filing fees are so high,” said Hasan Shafiqullah, The Legal Aid Society’s Society Deputy Attorney-In-Charge of the Immigration Law Unit. “Not only does citizenship bring a whole host of rights and privileges, but also crucial protections that shield against detention and deportation from the Trump White House. We laud Comptroller Stringer’s efforts to help with the soaring cost of naturalization and make this dream more accessible to immigrant communities.”

James Hong, Co-Director at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, said, "We do not help ourselves, this country, by erecting walls - physical ones or financial ones.  The rising cost of citizenship is a greater and greater obstacle being placed in front of immigrants who want to pledge their allegiance to this country and participate fully.  It has now become so expensive that it can deter those who are eligible from applying, becoming fully integrated into our country, and ultimately, exercising their right to vote.  We applaud NYC Comptroller Stringer for his leadership and bringing data to illuminate the gravity of this issue."

“For the first time in the history of New York City, a Comptroller has proposed a bold idea to protect our immigrant communities from predatory practices that create unnecessary and costly barriers that stand in the pathway to citizenship.  Comptroller Scott Stringer is proposing a public-private partnership to cover the cost of becoming a citizen that will benefit all New Yorkers.  Becoming a citizen should not be cost prohibitive because it is not the American way.  On behalf of the South Asian Fund for Education, Scholarship and Training, we are grateful and proud to stand with Comptroller Scott Stringer,“ said Mazeda A. Uddin, Founder and President of the South Asian Fund for Education, Scholarship and Training (SAFEST).

“Now more than ever, monetary barriers should not prevent our families from the protections and benefits of naturalization. We know first-hand that cost matters when applying for citizenship. We commend Comptroller Stringer’s advocacy efforts and feel that his proposal will benefit thousands of immigrants in NYC,” said Cheikh Ahmed Mbareck, Executive Director of Majlis Ashura Islamic Leadership Council of NY.

"We serve hundreds of new immigrants who seek citizenship. We assist them in ESOL classes, citizenship classes and in the application process itself. But some who come to us do not apply for citizenship due to the high cost of the application fee. We need to support these new immigrants to become American citizens. Lowering the costs will be one of the first steps towards helping them with citizenship, so they can apply to more jobs and provide more for their families. This move will allow more New Yorkers to realize the American Dream,” said Mohammad Razvi Executive Director Council of Peoples Organization.

“This investment will help mitigate one of the most significant cost hurdles in the citizenship process, protect families, and deliver long-term benefits for the city,” Comptroller Stringer said. “With this initiative, we can stand up to President Trump, empower immigrant New Yorkers, and show the world that when we see our values are under attack, we step up and fight back.”

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