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Obama Administration Seeks to Lower Cost of Citizenship for Lower-Income Immigrants

In a continuation of its effort to encourage eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens, the Obama administration is proposing adjustments to the immigration benefit fee schedule that would raise the cost of some benefits but reduce naturalization fees for certain low-income immigrants.

In a rule published in the Federal Register Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing changes to the fee schedule that it says would ensure that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — a largely fee-funded branch of DHS — can cover the cost of its immigration processing mission. The total adjustment amounts to an average 21 percent increase in the fee structure.

Largely exempt from the increases are, however, low income immigrants who wish to become U.S. citizens. Under the proposed rule, “DHS would charge a reduced fee of $320 for naturalization applicants with family income greater than 150 percent and not more than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.”

“DHS is proposing this change to increase access to United States citizenship,” the proposed rule explains.

The allowance effectively cuts in half the current cost of naturalization — $680, including the $85 biometric fee. The rule, however, also seeks an additional $45 increase in the cost of naturalization applications for immigrants who can afford it.

USCIS last adjusted its fee schedule in 2010 and the proposed rule will be open to public comment for 60 days.

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), who has been promoting naturalization and voter registration across the country as a means for immigrants to “Stand Up to Hate,” cheered the rule.

“Right now, a lot of immigrants face a difficult choice: pay $700 or so for the chance to take all the tests and apply for citizenship, or pay $450 to renew a green-card for five years,” Gutiérrez said in a statement.

“Now, the math is much better,” he continued. “You can apply for citizenship and a fee waiver and become an American citizen – with all the rights, duties and honor of citizenship – for a more attainable price or maybe even for free. The new calculation is going to mean that millions of those who are already eligible can finally take the step and apply for citizenship.”

Applicants can apply for a fee waiver if their income is below or 150 percent of the poverty line, they are receiving a means-tested benefit, or they are experiencing a “financial hardship.”

In recent years the Obama administration has put an emphasis on encouraging the estimated 8.8 million eligible legal permanent residents in the U.S. to naturalize and become citizens. Immigration activists, like Gutiérrez, have also embarked on campaigns to help immigrants naturalize and register to vote in a bid to influence the upcoming 2016 election.

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