Monday, September 28, 2009

Boston Globe: Fees deter many from citizenship

Nearly 300,000 legal immigrants in Massachusetts are eligible to become US citizens, but only a small percentage each year are reaching that goal, raising concerns that huge swaths of people are being priced out of the American dream.

Fees to apply for citizenship have soared in the past two decades from $60 a person to $675, making them among the highest in the Western world, researchers say.

At the same time, assistance for navigating the often confusing system is dwindling because of state budget cuts.

Citizenship is considered the ultimate pathway to integration in society, requiring that immigrants learn English and US history and defend the Constitution. It grants them the right to vote, apply for federal jobs, and bring their families to the United States.

In Massachusetts, nearly 29,000 immigrants became US citizens last year, about 10 percent of those eligible. This federal budget year, which ends Wednesday, only 16,099 immigrants have applied for citizenship so far in the state.

To apply for citizenship, immigrants must be permanent legal residents of the United States for five years, or three years if they are married to a citizen. They must fill out a form, pay fees, get fingerprinted, and undergo an interview, where they must pass an English test in history and civics.

The cost is not the only reason immigrants do not apply for citizenship, advocates and immigrants say. Some cannot speak English well enough to pass the test - more than 15,000 people are on waiting lists statewide for English classes. Still others do not wish to become citizens because they feel loyal to their homelands and plan to return.

Whatever the reason, researchers and advocates say, everyone pays the price that comes with having residents who are not full-fledged citizens. It is visible in low voter turnout among immigrants and the lack of engagement with police, schools, and community groups.

Perhaps less visible but more detrimental, researchers say, is the sense among noncitizens that they do not have a stake in this country.