City of Seattle v. DHS

  • December 12, 2019
City of Seattle


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

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

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 U.S. Constitution. There is also a $725 application fee. Before 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had a policy to waive 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 policy would significantly increase the burden on applicants who wished to apply for a fee waiver, and made it impossible for some poor lawful permanent residents to apply at all.

On October 30, 2019, Protect Democracy, Advancing Justice-AAJC, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and Mayer Brown LLP filed suit in California on behalf of organizations and communities who will be irreparably harmed by the proposed changes to the naturalization process.

Plaintiffs are the City of Seattle and five naturalization legal service providers who serve low-income, citizenship-eligible legal permanent residents: Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), Central American Resource Center of California (CARECEN), Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), OneAmerica, and Self-Help for the Elderly.

On November 6, 2019, the organizations and communities challenging changes to the naturalization fee waiver process asked a federal court to immediately bar USCIS from implementing those changes until the pending lawsuit is resolved. They also added new claims to the case, asking the court to find that Ken Cuccinelli’s installation as acting head of USCIS was unlawful and that the proposed new rules are invalid as a result.

Cuccinelli had been placed in the role of acting director in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA), which governs the process for filling a vacant executive branch position that is subject to Senate confirmation. “Congress passed the FVRA to ensure that the President could not prevent the Senate from playing its constitutional role as a check on the executive branch when vacancies arise,” said Rachel Goodman, counsel at Protect Democracy. “It gave the FVRA teeth by making all actions taken by illegally-appointed officials void.”

The Northern District of California heard oral argument on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction on Dec. 9, 2019. That same day, Judge Maxine Chesney issued a nationwide preliminary injunction barring USCIS from implementing the proposed changes. The ruling, issued from the bench, halted changes to the naturalization application process that would have presented significant barriers to citizenship for tens of thousands of non-wealthy applicants each year.

Judge Chesney ruled that Plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claim that USCIS failed to properly engage in the notice-and-comment rule-making required by the Administrative Procedure Act and that the agency’s new rules making it much harder for low-income residents to apply for fee waivers for naturalization and other immigration benefits are invalid as a result.

As a result, USCIS remains barred from enforcing its changes to the fee waiver process.

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