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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

Green card holders fret about citizenship

New citizens state the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America at the Naturalization Ceremony in Tucson on Nov. 17th. (Photo by Deborah Lee/Arizona Sonora News)

Nervous green card holders are seeking citizenship in greater numbers because of concerns that the Trump Administration’s new immigration policies could send them out of the country.

From July 2016 to September 2016, the number of I-485 forms (the application for a green card) received at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was 158,442, according to data released by USCIS. From October 2016 to December 2016, that number increased by about 17.5 percent to 186,036.

William DeSantiago, managing attorney of the immigration program at the Catholic Charities Community Services of Phoenix, said that ever since the election there have been more consultations at his organization and applications for citizenship because people are concerned about the laws of their legal residency.

USCIS received 239,628 N-400 forms (application for naturalization) from October 2016 to December 2016 and that number increased about 21 percent to 289,995 forms from January 2017 to March 2017.

“I think people are concerned that some law might take away their residency,” DeSantiago said, “since residency is a privilege and not a benefit.” Furthermore, their concerns include not being able to emmigrate their loved ones into the country, losing their permanent resident status, and being harassed when they try to go to their home country and not being able to come back into the States.

“The increase [of citizenship applicants] was driven by the motivation to vote but also out of fear since you can still be deported if you commit a crime,” said Erin Goeman, staff attorney at Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services.

There was a huge influx of people applying for citizenship at the end of 2016, according to Goeman, which results in longer waiting times. “The cynical part of me would say that there’s a benefit to our current administration to make immigrants wait a little bit longer,” she said, “because that will give the immigrant time to get arrested or to give up.”

New citizens at their Naturalization Ceremony on Nov. 17th at the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse. (Photo by Deborah Lee/Arizona Sonora News)

The path of becoming a citizen or a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of America costs a large amount of money and requires a lot of time. According to USCIS, an individual is eligible to apply for naturalization by following requirements such as, being at least 18 years old, being a green card holder who resides in the country for at least five years, and has knowledge of the U.S. government and history, among other requirements.

As of 2012, there were 13.3 million LPRs and nearly 8.8 million were eligible for naturalization, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Furthermore, USCIS receives and processes roughly 6 million immigration applications from both individuals and employers each year, according to the American Immigration Center. The applicants aim to either gain permission to permanently live in the U.S., to work temporarily, or to become a citizen.

However, the burden of the cost can turn away prospective citizens from actually pursuing naturalization.

DeSantiago said that the filing fee always seems to be increasing. “When I got here in 1996, the fee was $110 or somewhere in the $100 range,” he said.

An increase in fees took effect Dec. 23, 2016, for applications. In the application for a renewal or replacement of a green card, the fee rose from $365 to $455, according to the USCIS website. The application fee for naturalization climbed from $595 to $640. For those who are seeking a green card, the application fee increased $155 from $985 to $1,140. On top of this application fee, applicants need to pay an additional biometrics fee of $85.

According to DeSantiago, many people attempt to get waivers, but very few are eligible unless they are enrolled in a government benefit program. The cost discourages people from applying because they don’t have the means, said DeSantiago.

“Not every immigrant can apply for the means tested benefit and some aren’t poor enough,” said Goeman.

Elias Najera, 30, a green card holder living in Phoenix, said, “The cost of citizenship is holding me back. That is the only thing.”

USCIS can deny citizenship to applicants if they cannot prove the required length of permanent residence in the country or if they fail any of the requirements necessary.

When a naturalization application is denied, it often is because of a criminal conviction, DeSantiago said. “It can be minor, too,” he said, “if you have any criminal activity during the required time period, you get denied.” Goeman added that even small charges reflect badly on “good moral character.”

Applications also are being denied because individuals have failed to file taxes or pay child support, DeSantiago said. Additionally, the naturalization process includes an interview in which the applicant takes English and civics exams. Some applicants’ inability to pass the English exam can result in the denial of their application.

Becoming a U.S. citizen can mean many different things for individuals: security in residency, a participatory role in democracy, or a sense of belonging. Najera came into the country at age 4 and lived most of his life in the U.S. When he turned 18, he didn’t feel weird about not being able to vote, but now as an adult he wants to make his voice heard in different issues locally and nationally.

“I feel a little bit more of a desire to vote,” he said.

Deborah Lee is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at deborahlee@email.arizona.edu

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