New York City

NYC Comptroller Stringer report: Costs to apply for citizenship soaring

February 10, 2016 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In December, a full house of would-be citizens filled CUNY’s Citizenship Now event in Greenpoint. Photo by Mary Frost
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For many of the city’s immigrants, citizenship is the fulfillment of their American Dream.

Close to 670,000 New Yorkers are eligible to apply for citizenship. According to a report released Wednesday by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, however, the costs of the citizenship application process have spiked so high that immigrants may no longer be able to afford becoming full-fledged Americans.

Not only do soaring costs present a barrier to immigrants, Stringer says, but they serve as a drag on the city’s economy. Immigrants who naturalize in New York City experience increases in annual incomes from $1,975 to $3,265, bolstering tax receipts for the city, according to the report.

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The cost of filing a citizenship application has ballooned from $60 in 1989 to $680 today, well beyond the effect of inflation. On top of that, the city recently cut back on adult literacy classes and limited access to affordable legal services, Stringer says.

“With costs that can reach into the thousands of dollars, our citizenship process has become too expensive for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” Stringer said in a statement on Wednesday. “High fees and diminished access to English instruction and affordable legal services are throwing up roadblocks to naturalization for this generation of immigrants.”

Currently, low-income immigrants are offered fee waivers for the paperwork costs. But the waiver process is “plagued by problems,” including confusing application forms and inconsistent decision-making, Stringer says.

In 2011, for example, only 23,000 fee waivers for naturalization were granted out of a total of 756,000 applications – just 3 percent.

Even if immigrants receive fee waivers, there are still a variety of “hidden costs” that can run into the thousands of dollars. Applicants must pass a language-proficiency test – but the cost of English classes run typically around $400 per week for group lessons. Fees for consultations with immigration lawyers can run as high as $1,500.

Programs in place, but not enough?

There are city programs in place to help immigrants, and these are, in some cases, expanding.

In December, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, announced the creation of ActionNYC, a $7.9 million initiative which will work with 15 community organizations to provide immigration-related information and legal support.

One of these organizations is CUNY Citizenship Now! Corps, where volunteers help immigrants fill out citizenship applications, take ID photos and advise them on financial waivers.

Sandra Castillo, 62, said she was at a recent Citizenship Now! event in Greenpoint because, “I’d like to be a citizen of the United States.” Originally from Honduras, she has lived in the U.S. since 1986.

“But never I go to school because I’ve been working, working, working,” she said.

In October, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) announced it would offer expanded multilingual programming and language access resources, along with citizenship materials, in its branches through a partnership with Apple Bank. But hundreds of immigrants are on wait-lists for the adult-education classes.

The New York Public Library expanded seats for free English classes by 300 percent over the last three years. But several branches have reported having to turn away applicants because of high demand, Stringer reports.

These services are not enough, according to Stringer. Last year’s city budget cut 6,000 adult literacy seats for English as a Second Language (ESL) and civics classes, despite the booming demand for this service.

Many would-be citizens cite financial barriers as the greatest obstacle to naturalization. Immediately following a fee increase in 2008, the number of citizenship applications plunged from nearly 1.4 million in 2007 to just over 500,000 in 2008.

Comptroller Stringer’s report recommends that the federal government should dedicate additional resources to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ budget, with an eye toward reducing or even eliminating application fees for naturalization. Currently, 95 percent of USCIS’s operating budget is paid for through fees alone, putting the burden on low-income immigrant families who can least afford to pay.

Stringer also says that the federal government should improve the waiver process and research alternative payment options, including an installment plan.

Locally, the city should create public-private partnerships to offer “on-site” citizenship assistance programs in industries with large immigrant populations; increase funding for English as a Second Language and civics classes; partner with law schools to expand free legal services for immigrants and other measures.

 See Stringer’s complete report at

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