Beyond the Border Wall: Trump’s Citizenship Paywall

By the Immigrant Legal Resource Center

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A naturalization ceremony in Washington state. (DSC_1565" by City of Bellevue, WA is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For almost three years now, Trump’s demand for a border wall has been a major recurring theme in the news cycle. Time and time again, we’ve heard the chilling and offensive chant: Build that wall! Build that wall! And yet, while his chants and tantrums have captured our attention, his administration has been backstage, working hard to erect less tangible, but just as real and catastrophic barriers for immigrants.

One of the Trump administration’s recent underhanded attacks on immigrant communities is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) efforts to restrict access to fee waivers used by low-income immigrants who are applying for citizenship, green cards, and various other immigration benefits, including for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes. These fee waivers were created to ensure that every person, regardless of income, can have access to our immigration system.

The new revision to the fee waiver form (I-912), which was published on October 25, 2019 and would become mandatory on December 2, 2019, will drastically narrow the pool of applicants who are eligible to use fee waivers. Applicants who are receiving public benefits will no longer automatically be eligible to use fee waivers; instead, only applicants who get new paperwork from IRS to prove they are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold for financial hardship would have access to them.

The justification USCIS first gave for the change is that people are qualifying for the fee waiver by showing they receive a means-tested public benefit (such as health coverage or SNAP), which indicates financial need but not exact income since the eligibility for these benefits can vary from state to state. In other words, USCIS is claiming that people are taking advantage of the current fee waiver rules and using the waivers even though they don’t need them.

The problem with this “justification” is that it has no basis in fact. USCIS is using a fabricated problem to create a citizenship paywall.

The applicants looking to use these fee waivers have already passed strenuous income eligibility screenings by government agencies and should not have to prove their eligibility all over again to USCIS. For the past 10 years, we have had a process in place that saves costs to the USCIS and to the applicant. Keeping it unchanged is a smart thing to do.

It’s also the right thing to do. When you view the fee waiver changes in the context of the new public charge rule, increased denaturalization, failure to renew U.S. citizens’ passports, changes to notice to appear policy, ramped up enforcement, and the President’s own vulgar comments about countries where some immigrants were born, the true goal of the rule is made clear.

These changes to the fee waiver will make the process of applying for immigration benefits, including naturalization, even more challenging for low-wage workers, single parents, individuals confronting health issues, and families seeking to reunify. There’s data to prove it. A Pew Research Center study focused on Latinos found that more than nine-in-ten of those who cited administrative barriers to naturalization said cost was the reason they had not naturalized.

Many of the Trump administration’s “behind-the-scenes” changes have gone relatively under the radar due to their technical nature, but combined they create a formidable barrier for low-wage immigrants. The recently-released fee waiver form is just another brick in the policy wall this administration is attempting to build to make its narrow, elitist, and racist vision of who belongs in the United States a reality.

For generations, families in our country have relied on the support of social, health, and educational programs to jumpstart their success. U.S. citizenship is a gateway to economic opportunities and the ability to vote and fully engage in American civic life. Further restricting access to fee waivers, such a critical method of support for immigrants seeking to naturalize, would have a disastrous effect on our immigrant communities, and an even worse effect on our nation as a whole.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center works nationally to shape immigration law/policy and advance the rights of immigrants. www.ilrc.org

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