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
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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