Citizenship? Only Twice As Many Forms Await

Given that naturalized citizens earn about 60 percent more than noncitizens, 10 more pages of paperwork could become an obstacle “that would be a net loss for everyone,” the author says.

Eric Cohen is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which leads the New Americans Campaign.
National Journal
Eric Cohen
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Eric Cohen
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

Even as we wait for new im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion in Con­gress, our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem is un­der­go­ing some sig­ni­fic­ant changes that will make a dif­fer­ence to a di­ver­si­fy­ing Amer­ica.

Our na­tion’s 8.8 mil­lion leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents eli­gible for cit­izen­ship should take note of the next change, com­ing soon. The N-400 is the stand­ard form that all leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents must com­plete as part of the cit­izen­ship ap­plic­a­tion, and it will double in length in the com­ing months.

I know firsthand that changes like these have the po­ten­tial to al­ter the num­ber of cit­izen­ship ap­plic­a­tions that LPRs file — and not usu­ally in a pos­it­ive way.

After 25 years of work­ing at the Im­mig­rant Leg­al Re­source Cen­ter, and in my two years lead­ing the New Amer­ic­ans Cam­paign, I have worked closely with LPRs as they man­euver the long and com­plic­ated path to cit­izen­ship. I have seen the cit­izen­ship ap­plic­a­tion fees in­crease by more than six times, and the ap­plic­a­tion rates slashed by two-thirds be­cause of the fees.

The new N-400 form will add up­ward of 10 pages of ques­tions to the ap­plic­a­tion. And it could make the cit­izen­ship pro­cess more time-con­sum­ing for the 8.8 mil­lion per­man­ent res­id­ents eli­gible for cit­izen­ship na­tion­wide.

If high­er hurdles turn people away, that would be a net loss for every­one.

On the whole, nat­ur­al­ized cit­izens fare bet­ter eco­nom­ic­ally than their non­cit­izen coun­ter­parts. They earn between 50 per­cent and 70 per­cent more than non­cit­izens, have high­er em­ploy­ment rates, and are half as likely to live be­low the poverty line.

A new cit­izen will see an av­er­age boost in in­di­vidu­al earn­ings of 8 to 11 per­cent, dir­ectly tied to more job pre­par­a­tion, bet­ter match­ing between em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees, and a great­er abil­ity to switch jobs.

All of this trans­lates to mac­roe­co­nom­ic be­ne­fits as well, with the U.S. eco­nomy stand­ing to grow by $21 bil­lion to $45 bil­lion over 10 years — de­pend­ing on how ag­gress­ively we pri­or­it­ize nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion.

In oth­er words, where­as new de­vel­op­ments in our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem such as the nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion ap­plic­a­tion change may dis­suade LPRs from ap­ply­ing for cit­izen­ship, we should be do­ing all we can to en­cour­age them.

Al­though the changes to the nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion form are com­ing, there is still a lot we can do.

First, we can en­cour­age ap­plic­a­tions us­ing the older, sim­pler form right now, and dur­ing the 90-day win­dow between the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment of the new form (ex­pec­ted soon) and its im­ple­ment­a­tion.

We will gear our ef­forts to­ward max­im­iz­ing the num­ber of ap­plic­a­tions com­pleted and sub­mit­ted dur­ing that time frame.

The New Amer­ic­ans Cam­paign has laid a strong found­a­tion for en­cour­aging cit­izen­ship now and in the fu­ture — no mat­ter how the ap­plic­a­tion evolves. Part­ner­ing with sev­er­al dozen leg­al-ser­vice pro­viders, faith-based or­gan­iz­a­tions, busi­nesses, found­a­tions, and com­munity lead­ers, the New Amer­ic­ans Cam­paign already has provided free or low-cost high-qual­ity cit­izen­ship ser­vices to more than 80,000 people — sav­ing them more than $67 mil­lion in leg­al fees and waivers in the pro­cess.

We plan to ramp up that work in the com­ing months.

From Los Angeles to De­troit to Miami and New York, our cam­paign has done more than provide high-qual­ity cit­izen­ship as­sist­ance at a low cost. Our ser­vice pro­viders also have be­come trust­worthy part­ners for leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents.

We know that with cit­izen­ship, the mil­lions of im­mig­rants who have re­ceived their green cards will be in­nov­at­ive, re­source­ful, and pat­ri­ot­ic ad­di­tions to the Amer­ic­an fab­ric. So we are com­bin­ing the power of col­lab­or­a­tion with trus­ted or­gan­iz­a­tions, tech­no­logy to raise aware­ness, and in­nov­a­tion to ease an oth­er­wise com­plic­ated and high-stakes pro­cess.

Be­fore the nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion ap­plic­a­tion un­der­goes its changes in a few months, leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents can bring their ded­ic­a­tion to be­come cit­izens to a cit­izen­ship work­shop near them. At these work­shops, our leg­al vo­lun­teers tap in­to their com­mit­ment to learn the lan­guage and the his­tory of their new home coun­try. And we see the con­fu­sion and fear they face as the fi­nal step — the cit­izen­ship test — nears.

Cit­izen­ship car­ries not only eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits but also se­cur­ity and the abil­ity to par­ti­cip­ate fully in Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing in the vot­ing booth. The op­por­tun­it­ies of cit­izen­ship be­ne­fit all of us as we work to­geth­er to build a stronger Amer­ica.

The cit­izen­ship pro­cess is about as­pir­ing Amer­ic­ans’ hopes, dreams, and op­por­tun­it­ies. But it’s also about our na­tion’s prom­ise. That’s why the New Amer­ic­ans Cam­paign isn’t just about new Amer­ic­ans — it’s about all of us.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us.

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