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Citizenship fee increase protested

Advocates say the planned hike from $400 to $675 would penalize immigrants who are here legally and trying to play by the rules.

March 25, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Lawmakers, immigrants and rights advocates Saturday decried proposed fee increases they said would make it more difficult for green card holders to apply for citizenship.

Under a plan announced earlier this year by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, citizenship application and fingerprint fees would rise from $400 to $675 in June, a 69% hike. The increase is estimated to yield an additional $1 billion annually for the agency.

"This proposal does nothing to provide incentives for those pursuing the path of citizenship and the American dream," said Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) at a news conference near his district office.

"Instead, it punishes immigrants who have entered the U.S. legally and have played by the rules by requiring them to pay a higher price to become a U.S. citizen."

Saturday's news conference was held in conjunction with a training workshop at which volunteers, armed with material in half a dozen languages, taught more than 200 immigrants how to apply for citizenship. The 60 volunteers, some of whom were attorneys, provided material about the revised citizenship test, helped immigrants fill out complicated forms and checked paperwork to make sure it was in order.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) said she found the plan "very troubling" and would support recently introduced legislation to freeze citizenship application fees at current levels.

Solis said she was particularly concerned about the "50,000 green card soldiers" in the military, who may not be aware that they are eligible to apply for citizenship after serving one year and that their families are also eligible to apply.

"I recently met a Marine who has been in the service for four years, and he did not know he could apply and get the application fees reduced and was going to pay $10,000 to an attorney to process his application," she said.

Green card holders -- permanent legal residents -- can apply for citizenship after living in the United States for five years, or three years if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They must pass civics and English tests, be of "good moral character" and take an oath of allegiance.

Since the bureau announced its proposal to dramatically raise the fees, citizenship applications have soared in California and around the country.

The pending increases could affect millions of people, said Javier Angulo of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. There are 11.6 million legal permanent noncitizen residents in the U.S., of whom 8 million are eligible to naturalize. That includes 2.3 million in California, of whom about 1.3 million are in the Greater Los Angeles area, Angulo said.

Citizenship applications filed in Los Angeles and six surrounding counties more than doubled from 7,334 in January 2006 to 18,024 for the first month of this year, according to the bureau. Nationally, applications jumped to 95,622, up from 53,390 in 2006. Naturalizations completed in February rose to 80,126, up sharply from 57,056 a year earlier, spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said in an interview Saturday.

Responding to comments from critics, she said the bureau has to raise fees because Congress "designated us as a fee-based agency. We are required to run our agency based on fees we collect from people who apply for benefits with us. We are required to review our fees every two years."

Under federal regulations, individuals and organizations have until April 2 to formally comment on the fee proposal. Rummery said the agency expects to issue a final regulation about two months later, after reviewing all the comments.

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henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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