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Posted September 28, 2009
Fees Deter Many Immigrants From Citizenship
Advocates say cuts in services also play role
citizenship immigrant


Volunteers, including lawyers, helped qualified U.S. permanent residents like Santiago Vasquez and his two daughters, Maria and Mariana, fill out citizenship application forms at SEIU Local 615 near Downtown Crossing.



Nearly 300,000 legal immigrants in Massachusetts are eligible to become US citizens, but only a small percentage each year are reaching that goal, raising concerns that huge swaths of people are being priced out of the American dream.

Fees to apply for citizenship have soared in the past two decades from $60 a person to $675, making them among the highest in the Western world, researchers say. At the same time, assistance for navigating the often confusing system is dwindling because of state budget cuts.

Citizenship is considered the ultimate pathway to integration in society, requiring that immigrants learn English and US history and defend the Constitution. It grants them the right to vote, apply for federal jobs, and bring their families to the United States.

In Massachusetts, nearly 29,000 immigrants became US citizens last year, about 10 percent of those eligible. This federal budget year, which ends Wednesday, only 16,099 immigrants have applied for citizenship so far in the state.

In a third-floor walkup in Dorchester, members of the Arias family said they waited 13 years in the Dominican Republic to come here legally, and then five more years to be eligible to apply for citizenship. But, with low-wage jobs cleaning offices and serving coffee, they cannot afford the fees, which amount to $3,375 for the parents and four daughters, one of whom is a minor and is exempt from the fee.

“With these high prices, we’ll have to keep waiting,’’ said Leonidas Arias, a 58-year-old who cleans office buildings.

To apply for citizenship, immigrants must be permanent legal residents of the United States for five years, or three years if they are married to a citizen. They must fill out a form, pay fees, get fingerprinted, and undergo an interview, where they must pass an English test in history and civics.

The cost is not the only reason immigrants do not apply for citizenship, advocates and immigrants say. Some cannot speak English well enough to pass the test - more than 15,000 people are on waiting lists statewide for English classes. Still others do not wish to become citizens because they feel loyal to their homelands and plan to return.

Whatever the reason, researchers and advocates say, everyone pays the price that comes with having residents who are not full-fledged citizens. It is visible in low voter turnout among immigrants and the lack of engagement with police, schools, and community groups. Perhaps less visible but more detrimental, researchers say, is the sense among noncitizens that they do not have a stake in this country.

Without citizenship and participation, immigrants become outcasts, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. “We’ve lost our soul,’’ said Sum, who has studied low voter turnout among immigrants.

“You have a lot of people who are here who can’t register or don’t vote. What kind of democracy is that?’

The effects ripple across cities such as Boston, Lawrence, Cambridge, and Lynn, which have high immigrant populations and low citizenship rates. Less than half of immigrants in each city are naturalized citizens, according to 2008 census figures, compared with 49 percent statewide and 43 percent nationwide.

In Lawrence last week, less than a third of voters turned out for a historic election that could lead to the first Latino mayor in a city that is nearly 70 percent Hispanic.

In recent years, the citizenship picture across the country had appeared bright. Applications surged before the most recent fee increase in 2007, and more than 1 million people became US citizens last year - a record high, according to officials at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes the applications.

Still, an estimated 8 million legal immigrants are eligible to apply for citizenship, according to the agency. Nationally, the price of citizenship has soared while funding for citizenship assistance remains relatively low.

“Other than the United Kingdom, the United States is a very expensive country [for citizenship] - and notably more expensive,’’ said professor Randall Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who has studied immigration fees. In Canada and Australia, for instance, it costs about $200 to naturalize, he said.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services raised fees two years ago to hire more staff and modernize its systems to speed processing times. Now processing times are among their lowest in at least three decades. It takes less than four months in Massachusetts to become a citizen, on average, faster than the national rate. In addition, the federal agency is facing a budget shortfall, because of reduced applications for immigration services, that could lead to higher fees.

“We’re in kind of a challenge right now,’’ said agency spokesman Bill Wright.

In Massachusetts, the state slashed funding for citizenship classes to teach civics, history, and geography to prepare immigrants to pass the test, from more than $600,000 to $250,000 this year, as part of budget cuts. The cut contrasted sharply with the expectations that Governor Deval Patrick set in July 2008, when he pledged to find better ways to integrate immigrants into Massachusetts.

“We’re very disappointed that the program has been cut, and especially at this juncture,’’ said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “If you want everybody to participate and be more active in their communities, you should encourage citizenship.’’

Richard Chacón, executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, the state agency that administers the funding, said the governor and the state Legislature had to cut the funding because of widespread budget cuts. The governor had hoped the budget would be higher, he said.

“The administration has done so far what it can to preserve a program like this,’’ Chacón said. “It’s a reflection more of the tough budget climate than of any attitudes about the value of this program.’’

Advocates for immigrants say they need help filling out the application or even figuring out whether they are eligible to apply for citizenship.

One recent day, more than 100 immigrants from Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere poured into the SEIU Local 615 union hall in Downtown Crossing for help applying for citizenship.

Santos Valera, a 37-year-old Spanish teacher from Colombia who lives in Hudson, furrowed his brow when he read a question on the federal citizenship application asking whether he had any title of nobility. Told it meant royalty, he and a volunteer burst into laughter.

“He is royalty in his house,’’ said volunteer Jose Patrone.

At home in Dorchester, the Arias family has no idea when they might be able to afford the application fees.

Every Saturday, 24-year-old Anni Arias attends citizenship classes at the union hall, where teacher Ana Zambrano tutors her on everything from the location of the Statue of Liberty to the significance of the stars on the US flag. Arias is eager to vote, but earns less than $15,000 a year.

Last Tuesday, she was mid-sentence when the telephone rang. It was the Plumbers’ Union urging her to get out and vote in that day’s preliminary election in Boston.

“What can I tell you?’’ Arias told the caller, rubbing her head in frustration and wearing a yellow T-shirt that said “Barack and Roll.’’ “We can’t vote yet.’’

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company



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