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Immigration more costly, difficult

December 07, 2001|By SAM SCOTT, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Applying for American citizenship will get pricier in the new year. The cost will rise 24 percent by February, according to a spokeswoman at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The combined cost of applying for naturalization and getting fingerprinted will jump from $250 to $310. Three years ago, it cost $120. The agency said the increases reflect inflation and infrastructure improvements. Since 1998 it has whittled the backlog of naturalization cases to 587,000 from 1.8 million.

But the 158-percent jump in the application's cost since 1999 makes some worry that the poor, especially those with large families, are being excluded from naturalization. They want the government to help pay and worry that the waiver available for applicants who qualify may not be widely used.

"Many immigrants are going to find citizenship out of their reach," said Larry Gonzalez, director of the

National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

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El Centro resident Consuelo Cruz said she wants to become an American citizen like her children and husband. The disabled wife of a field worker, Cruz said she wants to vote and to know that she has the rights of a citizen, but she does not plan to apply any time soon.

"I don't have the money," she said in Spanish.

Gonzalez said the government should increase the

agency's funding to decrease the burden on applicants.

The United States has an interest in making citizenship

more affordable, he said.

"You risk creating this permanent ring of folks just

outside of society who don't truly feel they're stakeholders in the community," Gonzalez said.

INS uses applicant fees to cover almost all of its benefits budget. In 2001, $457 million of the agency's $500 million budget came from applicants' fees.

Gonzalez would like to see the government pay for about 50 percent of the application process.

It's difficult to tell what effect the cost of citizenship has had on willingness to pay. In 1999, the year the cost of naturalization more than doubled, applications for naturalization plunged from 933,000 to 735,000 — a 21-percent decline, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress.

The report said increased fees may be one of the reasons for the decline. But a bigger drop occurred between 1997 and 1998, the year before fees increased.

The report said the

mid-1990s spike in the number of applicants may have been a result of proposals to deny benefits to noncitizens and the eligibility of 3 million immigrants who received amnesty in the 1980s.

Ben Johnson, with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it is unfair for the agency to increase costs without improving service. He said wait times were beginning to rise. While waiting times for citizenship have declined, waiting times for other benefits have increased.

"What's most offensive is asking people to pay more for less," he said.

He likened the agency to a

balloon, where you push down on one part, naturalization benefits, and another part bulges out.

Tim Sprague, a law clerk in an El Centro immigration

lawyer's office, said cost increases do not change the flow of business at his firm, but rumors of changing standards — how hard it is to qualify — can result in the office being "besieged."

Jack Martin, a director with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group seeking a tighter immigration policy, said the public should not be asked to pay for others' immigration benefits.

He said the cost of naturalization serves as a screening device.

"There's no reason that the American taxpayer should be responsible for subsidizing the process," he said. "Our immigration policy … is supposed to screen out

people likely to become a public charge."

Martin also noted that the government has a fee waiver program for people unable to pay. Nearly 9,900 immigrants filed applications for fee waivers in fiscal 2000, and 77 percent of those were approved. The government's fiscal year runs from October to September.

Cruz said she had not heard of the program. Only 2 percent of total applicants for naturalization applied for a fee waiver in fiscal 2000, and 1.5 percent of total applicants received approval.

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