U.S. Department of Homeland Security
USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli.
In order to become naturalized U.S. citizens, immigrants must have been lawful permanent residents (green card-holders) for at least five years, speak English and pass a civics test.
They also must pay a $725 application fee — which since 2010 has been waived for people who receive public benefits through Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income.
But an incoming change by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services means those who receive such benefits won't automatically be eligible for the fee waiver. Instead, fee waivers will be limited to those at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level
, or $25,365 per year for a two-person household. Applicants who successfully "demonstrate financial hardship" in some other way can still qualify.
Immigrant advocacy organizations threatened legal action in response to the move.
“Waivers of the $725 application fee make it possible for thousands of hard-working people to become U.S. citizens,” Anna Gallagher, executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., said in a statement from her organization. “This change is a roadblock on the path to the American Dream."
CLINIC estimates that 40 percent of people who apply for naturalization currently receive a fee waiver.
In an Oct. 25 statement announcing the change, USCIS argues that the changes were necessary given that income and eligibility requirements for public benefits vary from state to state.
"The revised fee waiver process will improve the integrity of the program and the quality and consistency of fee waiver approvals going forward," USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli is quoted as saying.
The agency estimates that the total dollar amount of fee waivers increased by more than $23 million between 2016 and 2017, from $344.3 million to $367.9 million. Last year, though, USCIS granted $293.5 million worth of waivers. Revenue from application fees accounts for more than 95 percent of the USCIS budget, the statement notes.
Unless activists secure a court injunction to stop the change from taking place, it will go into effect Dec. 2 for anyone applying for naturalization.
Sound familiar? The
federal government has recently drawn ire with two other proposals that make it harder for people to upgrade their immigration status and receive public benefits.
• A USCIS rule change
allowing immigration officials to deny green cards to immigrants deemed likely to use public benefits was recently blocked in federal court. Opponents said it would discourage those in need from applying for nutrition and health care assistance.
• Another proposed rule
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would mandate that individuals aged 18 to 59 making between 130 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level could no longer receive SNAP benefits. Parents in that income bracket could only receive SNAP benefits if they also qualify for at least $50 in other federal assistance each month.