More Migrants Applying For U.S. Citizenship

More migrants applying for U.S. citizenship

By Daniel Gonzlez
The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), November 24, 2009

The number of legal immigrants applying for citizenship rose this year in Arizona, mirroring an increase in applications nationally.

The increase comes despite sharply higher application fees and the economic downturn, which have combined to make it more difficult for immigrants to afford to apply for citizenship, advocates say. The increase also follows a year in which applications fell.

Although applications rose 11 percent in fiscal 2009, their number remains among the lowest in several years. Officials say applications could fall again if fees are increased next year to help cover budget shortfalls.

'In this economic climate, steep application fees are probably contributing to the reduced levels of naturalization filings,' said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. 'A fee increase would be likely to exacerbate the problem.'

Only immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years as legal, permanent residents or those who hold a green card are eligible to apply for citizenship.

Recession takes toll on migrants

Immigration lawyers in Arizona say many legal immigrants are having a hard time scraping up the money to apply for citizenship because of the higher application fees.

Fees rose nearly 69 percent in August 2007, to $675 from $400. Applying is also tougher because some have lost their jobs because of the recession, and others are cutting back on expenses, afraid that they also may lose their jobs.

And it is not just the cost, said Nic Suriel, a Phoenix immigration lawyer.

'People have to take time off work to get fingerprinted and time off work to go to the (citizenship) interview,' he said.

A report released Nov. 18 by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says that the recession hit immigrants harder than the native-born population and eroded many of the economic gains immigrants made before the recession started.

Immigrants, legal and illegal, make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the workforce, according to the institute.

In fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30, 9,858 legal immigrants applied for citizenship in Arizona, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to data provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nationally, 570,442 people applied for citizenship, up 9 percent.

In 2008, applications plunged after nearly doubling the year before, to nearly 1.4 million nationally, 24,652 in Arizona.

Fees, test, election affect numbers

Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the CIS, said more people applied for citizenship in early 2007 to avoid the fee increase that took effect Aug. 1, 2007. Applications also may have been driven by a desire to avoid a new citizenship test, which some thought was more difficult.

But perhaps the largest factor was the 2008 presidential election. Because only citizens can vote, large numbers of people applied for citizenship in 2007 so they could have a voice in the election the following year.

'That clearly resulted in the bump,' Rummery said.

In 2008, citizenship applications then fell to some of their lowest levels in years, to 525,786 nationally and 8,849 in Arizona.

Immigration agency faces deficit

The CIS funds most of its operations through fees on immigration services, including those for green cards.

Although applications for citizenship were up in 2009, the agency experienced a sharp decline in the total number of all immigration-related applications it received. As a result, the agency will face significant budget shortfalls during fiscal 2010 and 2011, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman in Washington.

The agency ended fiscal 2009 with a $164 million deficit. To address that shortfall, the CIS is implementing reductions. But further cuts could reduce services to immigrants, Bentley said.

'We are examining options to further minimize the projected shortfall while maintaining current processing goals and moving forward with plans to modernize our business operations,' he said.

Fee hikes bring application boosts

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said a fee increase would likely spur another spike in applications as immigrants rush to get their applications in before the increase takes effect.

'As with past fee increases, a further increase is likely to generate an uptick in naturalization filings,' Meissner said. 'How much of an uptick is difficult to predict and may have as much to do with the depressed economic climate for immigrants as it does with the size of the increase.'