A quiet Friday before the long Veterans Day weekend was apparently as good a time as any for the Trump administration to unveil its latest assault on immigrants: rules changes designed to deter those legally here from acquiring their rightly earned citizenship.
The proposed new rules direct United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services (USCIS ) — the arm of our immigration system that is supposed to service and welcome, not deport or detain — to significantly raise the fees for the citizenship application. This and a range of other proposed changes to fees will be published for a 30-day comment period starting Nov. 14, half the usual time allotted for public input.
Under the proposal, the cost to naturalize would rise from $725 to $1,170 for a single application, hitting a level that totals about a month’s worth of gross income for an immigrant making the federal minimum wage. Recognizing the burden that even the lower fee had posed for low-income immigrants, USCIS has had a fee-waiver (and partial fee-waiver) system in place that was strengthened and extended by the Obama administration. The new rules would eliminate a reduced-fee option for applications from families with income between 150% and 200% of the poverty level and almost completely eliminate waivers for everyone else.
The official rationale for the reworked fees and waiver system is that USCIS needs to enhance its revenues to cover its costs. The projected need requires a total revenue increase of around 20%, a figure that hardly justifies a more than 60% hike in the cost of naturalization for most applicants. Moreover, the Trump administration is proposing to direct more than $200 million from USCIS’ enhanced earnings to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, money that could be used to promote immigrants taking up citizenship rather than to chase down their less documented counterparts.
What’s behind the shifts? In the official filing, the Department of Homeland Security suggests that previous naturalization fees were set below full cost-recovery to “promote naturalization and immigrant integration.” In arguing for the proposed fees —which would basically yield a profit for USCIS — DHS publicly frets that it worked, expressing concern about “the significant increase” of citizenship application forms in recent years.
This worry about new Americans clamoring to naturalize runs against a traditional bipartisan consensus that lawful permanent residents should be encouraged to take the next step to full civic engagement. Business leaders have been strongly on board the naturalization bandwagon, particularly given the evidence of economic benefits to the broader society when people become citizens.
A series of studies by USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration showed that previous fee hikes had a significant negative impact on naturalization rates and tended to disproportionately impact lower-income and Latino immigrants.
In particular, our work at USC showed that what really made the difference for an immigrant deciding to naturalize was the difference in cost between the citizenship fee and the less expensive charge to renew a green card. So it’s telling that USCIS is proposing to reduce the cost of a green card by 9%, nearly tripling the price wedge between remaining a lawful permanent resident and becoming a U.S. citizen.
This is a plan destined to lead to fewer immigrants becoming citizens, which may be the point.
The highly respected USCIS is being asked to make a change that will have clear political impact: Immigrants — who tend to lean liberal and Democratic — would be less likely and less able to gain the right to vote. The move is reminiscent of the Ukraine scandal in which the traditionally apolitical bureaucracy of the State Department was pressured to contort itself to serve partisan purposes.
After all, a recent New York Times analysis of the Virginia elections — in which Democrats took full control of both statehouses — suggests that suburban voters were critical. Important among those swing suburbanites were naturalized immigrants who viscerally rejected Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric; as one voter put it, “The way he speaks, you get the feeling that you are separate. This is not what we signed up for in America.”
The lessons of Proposition 187 are clear to many observers of California’s recent history: Immigrants angry over the 1994 attack on immigrant rights naturalized, voted and helped turn the state blue. Given the wreckage of Republicanism in the Golden State, some might conclude that it would be best to make peace with new Americans, particularly as they and their descendants continue to grow as a share of our population.
But another possible route is to make it harder to naturalize and vote. This may be consistent with a larger Republican effort to disenfranchise the changing electorate — consider the spate of voter restrictions supported by the GOP — but it stands in contrast to longstanding widespread support for immigrants embracing citizenship.
Those who have attended a naturalization ceremony are invariably struck by a profound realization: Becoming American is not about race or religion but about agreeing to a set of principles and values embedded in our history and our Constitution. Making it harder to become part of the American family may be politically convenient but it runs straight against those values. And if California is any example, it will inevitably backfire.
Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC.