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Why It's Getting More Expensive For Some Immigrants To Become U.S. Citizens


It's getting more expensive for some immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The Trump administration has proposed a number of ways to collect more money through citizenship application fees. The first takes effect today. Immigrant advocates see this as part of a broad effort to reject poor applicants. Shannon Dooling of member station WBUR reports.

SHANNON DOOLING, BYLINE: Megeliea Adrian sifts through a crinkled business envelope stuffed with her family's passports and green cards. Across the table, Kevin Yurkerwich, a volunteer attorney, reviews her citizenship application.

KEVIN YURKERWICH: Do you have the earlier one from 2016?

MEGELIEA ADRIAN: Let me check. This is my daughter's passport.

DOOLING: There are 50 or so aspiring U.S. citizens clutching fistfuls of documents and filling out paperwork in the conference room of a downtown Boston law firm. Adrian was born in Haiti and has lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years. She's decided now is the time to become a citizen.

ADRIAN: You not citizen, you not vote. I love America. I'm going to citizen. I'm going to vote. Yeah.

DOOLING: Becoming a citizen isn't easy. There are numerous eligibility requirements, heaps of paperwork and an application fee.

Do you know how much it costs to apply for your - for citizenship?

ADRIAN: I don't know.

YURKERWICH: North of $700.

ADRIAN: Seven hundred? Yeah. Some people got $700. Some people don't.

DOOLING: Adrian, for one, does not. When we met her last week, she planned to apply for a waiver for the $725 application fee.

MELANIE TORRES: The hardest thing is the payment.

DOOLING: That's Melanie Torres. She's the program director for Boston-based Project Citizenship, which is sponsoring this workshop. The federal government has waived fees for people who can prove they receive federal and state benefits, like food stamps or Medicaid. But as of today, that's not going to be enough. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now require something called a tax transcript from the IRS. Torres says obtaining this document will be nearly impossible for many of her clients.

TORRES: Most of our clients are transient. A lot of them are elderly and don't file taxes or are claimed as dependents on other people's taxes. So it's really, really hard to prove their income.

DOOLING: Project Citizenship recently filed a federal lawsuit in Boston alleging the new rule amounts to a wealth test for citizenship and that it will prevent thousands of low-income legal permanent residents from becoming citizens. About 40% of citizenship applicants get a fee waiver.

A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services said in an email that the agency relies on fees to cover the costs of its operations. Fee waivers add up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But Torres says the Trump administration is motivated by more than fiscal concerns.

TORRES: We know that this is strategic, right? We know that the election is coming up. We know that everyone is more interested right now. And in 2020, we're going to see a huge surge in interest. And we know that this is because they don't want low-income immigrants to vote against Trump.

DOOLING: The Trump administration denies that the rule change is discriminatory, though officials do say immigrants should be financially self-sufficient. They are also proposing hiking the cost of naturalization from the current $725 fee to $1,170 and eliminating fee waivers altogether.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Dooling in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Dooling