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The cost of citizenship may go up

Immigrant rights groups say fee hikes and online filing would be a barrier.

October 29, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Immigrant advocacy groups are decrying an array of proposed federal measures, including application fee increases and online filing requirements, that they fear will sharply reduce the ability of some legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

As President Bush signed a controversial bill last week authorizing 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant rights groups charge that the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is erecting a virtual "second wall" that would disproportionately hurt Mexican immigrants, who tend to be less educated and earn lower incomes than others.

Last week, a coalition of more than 230 religious, labor and immigrant rights groups delivered a letter to citizenship bureau Director Emilio Gonzalez, expressing strong concern about application fee increases that could double to $800, a "digital barrier" of a mandatory online filing system, extensive new paperwork and a revised history and civics test they fear could be more difficult.

"Together they appear to us a clear strategy pursued through administrative fiat to make the dream of American citizenship unattainable for many lower-income, less-educated immigrants," said the letter, which was initiated by the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Some activists fear the Bush administration is seeking to tighten access to citizenship to bar potential new Democratic voters. But U.S. immigration officials flatly deny any partisan motives.

They say they are merely aiming to make the system more efficient, financially self-sustaining and better able to ensure that new citizens understand foundational American values and historical events. Some of the initiatives, including the move to automation and a revised test, were recommended in 1997 by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform under the Clinton administration. The final proposals are expected to be announced in the next few months and take 12 to 18 months to implement.

A 'priceless gift'

"There is no more priceless gift a person can receive than American citizenship," said Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the citizenship bureau in Washington. "Our expectation is that people who have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens realize that the cost and sacrifice is worth the investment in their future."

Some immigrants would seem to agree. At a recent citizenship workshop in Los Angeles, where volunteers served 2,000 people who lined up for hours to apply for naturalization, machine operator Arturo Reyna said he scrimped and saved for a year to pay the $400 application fee. The native of Mexico, whose wife, Rosa, is a U.S. citizen, said the price was eminently worth the right to vote and to live here with his family.

"There are big groups trying to stop immigration," said Reyna, 30. "We don't like these things, but we can't vote. As a citizen, you can take part in decisions."

Victor Yebra, a 38-year-old silk screener who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as a boy to join his bracero father and subsequently won amnesty, said some immigrants might find higher application fees or online filing requirements onerous. But he said they would not dissuade those determined to become citizens.

"A lot of people here won't want to deal with these things, but I think they'll find a way to do it," Yebra said. "It's all for your own good future."

Koreans also alarmed

The proposed changes have, however, alarmed many -- and not only in the Latino community. Koreans accounted for about one-fourth of the organizations signing the letter of protest to Gonzalez.

Koreans began naturalizing in greater numbers in the mid-1990s, when the Los Angeles riot and welfare cutbacks aimed at immigrants showed them the importance of civic influence, said Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium in Koreatown. Still, she said, about 300,000 Korean immigrants eligible to become citizens have not yet done so.

"With these measures, the message they're sending is that they want to delay full civic participation of new citizens," Lee said.

According to scholars, the politics of naturalization are nearly as old as citizenship rites themselves.

At the turn of the 20th century, urban political machines trolling for voters in several states pushed through so many fraudulent naturalizations that Congress passed a landmark immigration reform bill in 1906, said Lorraine McDonnell, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor. Among other things, she said, the reform bill required for the first time that applicants be able to speak English.

More recently, the Clinton administration was accused of "importing votes" by relaxing normal immigration procedures in its Citizenship USA campaign to register 1 million mostly Latino new voters before the 1996 elections.

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