Citizenship Changes Draw Objections

Citizenship Changes Draw Objections

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006; Page A04

The Bush administration is considering proposals that would make it tougher for legal immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship.

The proposals being drafted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, could nearly double application fees, toughen the required English and history exams, and ask probing questions about an applicant's past, such as “Who is your current wife's ex-husband?”

In an interview yesterday, a USCIS spokesman said the contemplated changes are necessary to pay increased administrative costs and to standardize an application that is subjective and varies across the country.

But immigration rights advocates say the changes would amount to a second wall, a potential barrier against legal immigration that is as formidable as the newly authorized southern border fence is supposed to be against illegal migrants.

Changes in the citizenship application process are being contemplated amid a contentious debate over whether the federal government should undertake a comprehensive reform of immigration policy that includes establishing a guest worker program, or just build a barrier along the Mexican border and adopt a get-tough policy toward illegal immigrants and companies that employ them. Throughout the debate, however, opponents of illegal immigration have said their quarrel is not against immigrants who are in the country legally.

Groups such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said that a near-doubling of the $400 application fee is being considered, and that the new fee would be more than legal residents who earn a minimum wage can pay. “It's going to take twice as long for those people to save up money to apply for citizenship,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the coalition. “You won't have Mom, Dad and children all going to the citizenship ceremony together. You'll have Mom going first, then Dad, then maybe the children.”

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, took issue with the coalition's talk of a twofold fee increase.

“A fee review is underway,” Bentley said, “but no decision has been reached. I don't know how they came about that.” He did not rule out the possibility that the fee could double, saying: “When we do the final analysis, we're going where the math takes us. We have to recoup the costs of processing these applications.” Bentley noted that Congress does not appropriate money to pay the costs of processing citizenship applications.

The citizenship agency handles about 6 million to 7 million citizenship-related applications each year. About 1 million of those are N-400 applications from immigrants hoping to become naturalized American citizens.

A deluge of requests this year and last contributed to a daunting backlog of nearly 4 million applications. USCIS reported this summer that it whittled the number to about 40,000, saying it was not responsible for millions of applications that were filed improperly, had unpaid fees or awaited FBI background checks.

Bentley said the agency's chief financial officer is expected to complete his report and fee recommendations by the end of the year. Around the same time, the citizenship office is expected to complete its recommendations for standardizing the written and oral English examinations that are required for citizenship.

The office might also replace questions such as “What are the colors of the flag?” Bentley said, to “What is one of the fundamental principles protected by the Constitution?”

In recent days, concerns arose about another test — for DNA samples. Immigration officials use the tests to verify the paternity of immigrant parents who apply to bring their children to the United States.

But lawyers recently complained that officials are starting to require the tests — about $800 each — even when the relationships are strongly documented by paperwork.

Immigration advocates say the costs to immigrants keep piling up. They said USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzlez seemed unsympathetic, and perhaps insensitive, when he said: “American citizenship is priceless. I think people will pay.”

“It was a ridiculous statement,” Tsao said.

Bentley stood by the statement of his boss, an immigrant from Cuba. “As a naturalized citizen himself, he feels his citizenship is priceless,” Bentley said. “It's the greatest benefit our country can bestow, and it's a one-time fee to be a part of the greatest country in the world.”