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Lawsuit announced to challenge DHS barriers designed to prevent legal immigrants from becoming citizens

USCIS changes to naturalization fee waiver process forecloses citizenship for some low-income applicants

Washington, DC — Today, October 25, 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced changes to the naturalization process that will present significant barriers to citizenship for tens of thousands of non-wealthy applicants each year.

Under current policy, immigrants are typically not eligible to naturalize until they have lived as lawful permanent residents in the United States for five years, speak English, understand U.S. history and civics, and demonstrate a commitment to the US Constitution. There is also a $725 application fee. US Citizenship and Immigration Services currently waives the fee for those who cannot afford to pay it, which is approximately 40% of applicants. Under rules in place since 2010, lawful permanent residents (also commonly referred to as green card holders) who receive means-tested benefits from another government agency are automatically entitled to a fee waiver, making the process easy for USCIS to administer and for applicants and service providers to complete. 

The new rules will make it much harder to qualify for a fee waiver, and will severely curtail naturalization applications, particularly from low-income applicants. Recent research from Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab suggests that the new rules could reduce the number of naturalization applications filed each year by as much as 10 percent. 

Protect Democracy, Advancing Justice-AAJC, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and Mayer Brown LLP are preparing to file suit in California on behalf of organizations and communities who will be irreparably harmed by these changes. 

STATEMENT FROM SEATTLE MAYOR JENNY A. DURKAN

“The American promise must be open to all. Wealth is not and should never be a requirement of being an American citizen. Seattle will fight for the promise of America and against a pay-to-play approach to citizenship. We demand this administration be accountable to our constituents and maintain the current fee waiver process. I am grateful to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes for ensuring our City protects the constitutional freedoms of our communities. Immigrants and refugees are part of Seattle’s heritage, and they will continue to make us the city of the future.” 

STATEMENT FROM JESSICA MARSDEN, COUNSEL FOR PROTECT DEMOCRACY

“This Administration wants to stop legal immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for years from becoming citizens. The president talks tough about so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ and asylum-seekers, but behind the scenes is also making policy intended to hurt legal immigrants who have been here for years. All legal residents who live and work here, pay taxes, and want to be Americans—our neighbors, coworkers, and friends—should have the opportunity to become citizens and participate in our democracy.”

STATEMENT FROM MELISSA RODGERS, DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS, IMMIGRANT LEGAL RESOURCE CENTER

“The Immigrant Legal Resource Center strongly condemns the Trump administration’s latest attempt to make it harder for low-income immigrants to seek an exemption from the high costs of applying for citizenship. The new regulations will make it significantly more difficult for hundreds of thousands of aspiring Americans to receive fee waivers, effectively creating a wealth test for citizenship.” 

STATEMENT FROM JOHN C. YANG, ASIAN AMERICANS ADVANCING JUSTICE | AAJC PRESIDENT AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

“This rule change is about changing the complexion of future immigrants from black and brown to white and furthers a class-based society that is discriminatory and unwelcoming. We cannot allow our government policies to reject the time-tested promise on the Statue of Liberty of a country that is accepting of the potential of the tired, poor, and huddled masses who yearn to breathe free in America.”  

STATEMENT FROM ANNA GALLAGHER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CATHOLIC LEGAL IMMIGRATION NETWORK, INC.

“Waivers of the $725 application fee make it possible for thousands of hard-working people to become U.S. citizens. This change is a roadblock on the path to the American Dream. The justification by USCIS—that reducing the number of fee waivers will help fund agency operations—is baseless, in fact it’s counterproductive. Even as USCIS fees keep going up, their case backlogs grow. USCIS mismanagement should not be used to punish immigrants.”

STATEMENT FROM RICH STOLZ, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF ONE AMERICA

“We believe in an America that welcomes immigrants and supports people in seeking their citizenship and right to vote regardless of race, national origin, class or economic status. Unfortunately, this action and others taken by the administration serve to create a two-tiered immigration and naturalization system—a ‘fast track’ for the wealthy and a much more difficult path for everyone else. This attack on immigrants smacks of discriminatory actions like poll taxes and other measures designed to deny people of their right to exercise their citizenship and vote. In the past, we made progress when people came together to stand for justice. Today our movement will push back against barriers to citizenship that harm working people with all the tools in our toolbox, including litigation to hold the administration accountable.”

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Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.

Mayer Brown is a distinctively global law firm, uniquely positioned to advise the world’s leading companies and financial institutions on their most complex deals and disputes. The firm offers pro bono legal representation across the spectrum of public interest law, including in such areas as asylum and immigration, housing, public benefits, education, criminal justice reform, social finance and social entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations. 

Asian Americans Advancing Justice. AAJC’s mission is to advance the civil and human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Advancing Justice | AAJC is a national 501 (c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1991 in Washington, D.C.

The City of Seattle, Washington is Washington State’s largest city and the seat of King County. Seattle created its Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) in 2012 to improve the lives of Seattle’s immigrant families. OIRA funds and coordinates two naturalization programs, the New Citizen Campaign and the New Citizen Program, both aimed at helping the estimated 75,000 Seattle-area LPRs become U.S. citizens.

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) is the nation’s largest network of nonprofit immigration legal services programs. Its mission is to provide immigration legal services to low-income and vulnerable populations. In service of that mission. CLINIC provides materials, training, and funding to its members, including in particular local organizations that provide naturalization services.

Central American Resource Center of California (CARECEN) is the largest Central American immigrant rights organization in the country. Its mission is to empower Central Americans and all immigrants by defending human and civil rights, working for social and economic justice, and promoting cultural diversity. As part of this mission, CARECEN offers free legal assistance to eligible immigrants in order to help them apply for citizenship and become civically-engaged citizens.

Immigrant Legal Resources Center (ILRC) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to work with and educate immigrants, community organizations, and the legal sector to continue to build a democratic society that values diversity and the rights of all people. As a key part of that mission, ILRC serves as the lead agency for the New Americans Campaign, a national campaign aimed at increasing the number of “new Americans” by providing legal services and resources related to the naturalization process.

OneAmerica is the largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization in Washington State. Its mission is to advance the fundamental principles of democracy and justice at the local, state, and national levels by building power within immigrant communities, and it focuses on helping eligible immigrants apply for citizenship and become civically engaged citizens.

Self-Help for the Elderly provides assistance and support for seniors throughout the San Francisco area. As a part of this mission, Self-Help serves as the lead agency for SF Pathways to Citizenship, a partnership between the City of San Francisco and six legal and social services providers. As the lead agency for SF Pathways to Citizenship over the last 5.5 years, Self-Help has been responsible for over 8,000 applications, over 60% of which were filed with fee waivers.