Co-authored by: Manuel Pastor, Director, Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at University of Southern California
In the heat of the electoral season, there will be few things about which the Presidential candidates will agree – particularly on immigration policy. There is, however, one area on which there has long been broad bipartisan support: encouraging eligible legal permanent residents (LPRs) to become citizens and vote.
Many immigrants are scared of the test or concerned about their English abilities. But focus groups – and careful data analysis – also suggests that the fee has been a deterrent. In 1999, the fee was $225; in today’s dollars, that would be around $320. But the cost has actually more than doubled in real value to $680, with the biggest hike coming in 2007 under President George W. Bush.
But while the costs of renewing an individual’s green card may be low, the costs of leaving so many participants out of the process of civic engagement are high. Many New Americans are working hard to integrate into our society, but the current system is perpetuating an American underclass, legally here but frozen out of our democracy. It’s detrimental to immigrants, their communities, and our nation.
This is a good start but there is more to be done. The federal government should ensure that waivers for citizenship are expanded and widely publicized – and make sure that the fee rolls over to pay for the green card renewal, should an applicant fail the naturalization test. USCIS should avoid working at cross-purposes; while some other fees may need to be hiked, doubling the cost for what is termed “derivative citizenship” (when minor children are naturalized along with their parents) will give many families pause. A bipartisan, multisector strategy to promote citizenship must also include municipal and state governments who can help provide English language and civics instruction; one model effort is Cities for Citizenship, co-chaired by Mayors Bill de Blasio, Rahm Emanuel, and Eric Garcetti.
Immigrants themselves seem willing to make the leap: during the first quarter of fiscal year 2016, there was a 14.5 percent year-over-year jump in naturalization applications, followed by a 27.7 percent year-over-year jump in the second quarter, partly because of nonpartisan campaigns to encourage citizenship and partly because of reactions to the current toxic rhetoric around immigrants.
In a country where just over half of eligible population is even registered to vote, there’s an eager population waiting in the wings to be a part of the process. It is our duty—enshrined in our nation’s founding documents—to promote and support the citizenship and civic participation of all eligible Americans. Citizenship deterred—whether by the prohibitive cost or other barriers— is democracy denied.
Joshua Hoyt is the Executive Director of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of 37 of the country’s largest immigrant rights organizations. Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, Director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), and Director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at USC.