The Fee for Freedom: The Hidden Struggles of Naturalization

By Karlee Dies, Becca Martin, Aaron Foster-Williams

The plight for immigrants fleeing their country doesn’t end once they arrive in America. It’s actually just beginning. There are many obstacles immigrants face in the process of assimilation, but there is one that stands out amongst the others. Aspiring citizens must pass a vigorous test to complete the process of naturalization. The test is the main barrier that separates every potential new American from becoming a citizen. The majority of the American population are natural-born citizens. Therefore, they are not required to pass any exam in order to become a citizen. This disparity between those who were born citizens and those looking to become citizens makes it difficult to understand the struggle of assimilation.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is the biggest decision for immigrants aspiring to succeed in America. At the end of 2014, there were an estimated 14.4 million refugees, a 19 percent growth from the previous year. Of those 14.4 million, it was estimated that there are over 4.2 million Syrian refugees now in American according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This year, the refugee celling settled at 85,000 admitted refugees by the President and Congress, according to immigrationpolicy.org.

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Graphic: www.immigrationpolicy.org

The Refugee Admissions Program is administered collectively by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the Department of State, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS), and offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within DHS conducts refugee interviews and determines individual eligibility for refugee status in the United States.

According to immigrationpolicy.org there are three principal categories for classifying refugees under the U.S. refugee program. The first priority is individuals with compelling persecution needs or those whom no other durable solution exists. These individuals are referred to the United States by UNHCR, or are identified by a U.S. embassy or a non-government organization.

The second level of priority is the group of “special concern” immigrants to the U.S., which are selected by the Department of State with inputs from USCIS, UNHCR, and designated NGOs. The groups include certain persons from the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Burma and Bhutan, currently.

The third level are the relatives of refugees, including parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21, who are already settled in the United States may be admitted as refugees. The United States based relative must file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) and must be processed by DHS.

The Regional Refugee Coordinators and overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) does extensive interviewing, screening and security clearances of each refugee before they are allowed admission in to the United States. The qualifications include, individuals generally not already be firmly resettled in any other country. The INA requires most prospective refugees to prove their individual case of “well-founded fear,” regardless of the person’s country, circumstances, or classification in a priority category.

Refugees are subject to the grounds of exclusion listed in Section 212(a) of the INA, including health-related grounds, moral/criminal grounds, and security grounds. They may also be excluded for polygamy, misrepresentation of facts on visa applications, smuggling, and previous deportations. Waivers exist for certain grounds of exclusion.

After a refugee has been conditionally accepted for resettlement, the RSC sends a request for assurance of placement to the United States, and the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) works with private voluntary agencies (VOLAG) to determine where the refugee will live. Refugees settled in the United States do not need to have a U.S. “sponsor.” If a refugee approved for admission does have a living relative in the United States, every effort is made to place the refugee near his or her relative. If a person in accepted as a refugee for admission to the United States, it is conditioned upon the individual passing a medical examination and all security checks.

According to a Human Rights First report, the processing times of the U.S. refugee resettlement program “can be quite prolonged, leaving some refugees stranded in dangerous locations or in difficult circumstances.”

Additionally, the Department of State states that the entire process can take an average of 18-24 months to complete. These issues have improved in recent years, in a 2014 report; the Obama Administration cited “interagency coordination and processing procedures” as one of the reasons for increased admissions.

Once this assurance of placement has been secured and medical examinations and security checks have been completed, RSCs work together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to schedule and arrange refugee travel to the United States. Before departing, refugees sign a promissory note to repay the United States for their travel costs. This travel loan is an interest-free loan that refugees begin the pay back six months after arriving in the country. Upon receipt of the IMO travel notification, the VOLGA arranges for the reception of refugees at the airport and transportation to their housing at their final destination.

Once the refugees first arrive in America, a VOLAG is responsible for assuring that the most services are provided during the refugees first 90 days in the United States. They arrange for food, housing, clothing, employment counseling, medical care, and other necessities.

After becoming comfortable with their surroundings, some refugees decide to take it a step further and become a naturalized citizen. The U.S. Federal Government can only accept a limited number of potential citizens from each county. In 2013, 271,807 people became naturalized citizens of the total 316.5 million people in the country.

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The naturalization process starts with obtaining a permanent resident card, informally known as a green card. This small piece of plastic grants the cardholder immigration benefits that are essential for starting over. Green cards are only distributed to those who are eligible for them, which is usually determined by family, employment, refugee or asylum status. The green card grants the legal right for immigrants to permanently reside in the United States, making them a lawful permanent resident (LPR). Many immigrants find out that the odds are against them when applying to become a LPR.

The next step after receiving a green card and becoming a LPR is qualifying for naturalization. Most of the immigrant population struggles with this step because the application process is very rigorous. The USCIS system is backlogged with millions of applications because of tight quotas that limit the number of green cards that are annually distributed. However, there are several qualifications one must pass before the naturalization process begins.

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Picture: US Citizen Information

Applicants must be at least 18 years of age at the time of filing the N-400 Application for Naturalization. They must be able to show that they have lived for at least three months in the state or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) district where you apply. The applicant must be able to demonstrate continuous residence in the United States for at least five years immediately preceding the date of filing to N-400 Form.

They must also be able to show that they have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years immediately preceding the date of filing the Form N-400. Applicants must also be able to speak, write and read basic English in addition to having a basic understanding of the U.S. history and government. Finally, they must be a person of good moral character meaning that he or she haven’t committed minor crimes or been spending too much time outside of the United States.

The cost of applying for citizenship is another fear that haunts LPRs. The idea of spending thousands of dollars is something that many people dread, but for immigrants it may be inevitable. Fees can run into the thousands especially when immigration lawyers are hired to help the applicants through the process in which those costs can range from $5,000 to $15,000. In New York City, immigration lawyers charge several hundred dollars for consultation fees, and as much as $1,500 for obtaining documentation and filling applications.

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The application fees have risen almost 500 percent since 1989, when the fee was just $60. Today it costs $595 plus the $85 biometrics fee that includes the background check and fingerprints. The purpose of the fingerprint scan is for conducting FBI criminal background checks. If the LPR does not have steady income, then they usually can’t afford the application fee to become a U.S. citizen. Families with lower incomes are sometimes offered waivers for application fees, but only a small percent actually receive this benefit. The cost of a U.S. citizenship has become too expensive for many immigrants.

The application itself is a lengthy 21-page document that asks a series of questions and requires a lot of personal information. Many immigrants are not native English speakers and struggle to fill out basic paperwork. The ones who fail to learn how to read and write are forced to hire people to translate and assist them. Many New Americans are forced to take English language classes to learn the language, but these classes can cost as much as $400 per week plus the costs of textbooks and class hours.

The exam is broken up into an interview in which a USCIS officer asks several questions that the immigrant must answer. This interview will determine if the person can fully understand and speak English. The applicant is also instructed to read and write a single sentence given to them. This may seem easy for English speaking Americans, but for someone who is of native language is not English, this can be extremely difficult.

During the interview, the USCIS quizzes immigrants on their knowledge of certain principles of the U.S. Constitution as well as the fundamental concepts of U.S. history. Only 10 questions will be asked out of 100, and six must be answered correctly. If the final test is passed, then the final step is completed after the Oath of Allegiance is taken at the naturalization ceremony.

From 2013-2015, over 2.2 million immigrants were naturalized. However, in that same time frame, over 200,000 permanent residents had their Form N-400 Application for Naturalization, denied.

There are several common reasons for this. Many were failing the English and civics test bringing up the fact that they needed more assistance in learning what they needed to know. Others were failing from the biometrics section where they had a criminal background check done. If he/she committed a crime, whether it was in another country, minor or as big as a felony, it is grounds for denial. Another issue arises out of travel. Most applicants don’t realize how important their lack of travel is on this application. The more that they travel outside of the United States the more he or she interrupts their continuous residency which triggers a red flag.

Many were denied because they didn’t pay taxes because they didn’t know they had to. Additionally, the lack of finance presents itself again as another issue. The final common reason was that some of these people want citizenship so bad that they will lie about when their green cards were issued or not answer a question truthfully which is grounds for denial too. Because the process is so difficult, many seek other routes to be here and remain as an illegal immigrant.

In order to ensure success, there are local organizations to assist these people in their future as an American citizen.

In Erie, the Multicultural Resource Center has a refugee support branch to help refugees that have been in America for less than five years. Their mission is the help break down the cultural barriers due to language, appearance, or ethnic traditions. They actively promote and advocate the development, empowerment, and advancement of all people while preserving their cultural identity. The multicultural center provides a variety of educational and employment programs to the Immigrant and Refugee populations.

The Catholic Charities of Erie offers services for refugees as such as airport reception with a hot meal. Housing, including initial apartment supplies and furniture, initial financial assistance, orientation classes –cultural orientation and orientation to Erie, case management services, initial interpretation/translation assistance. They also offer employee assistance, initial medical appointment assistance and referrals to other social services. They truly try to make a difference in the life of refugees within the first five minutes.

Catholic Charities in Erie resettles approximately 200 new refugees each year. For the past few years, the majority of the refugees have been Bhutanese, Somalis, Iraqis and Burmese. They have plenty of volunteer opportunities to get local citizens involved in making a difference in their lives and help integrate them into the communities. Most of the CCCAS staff members are former refugees themselves, providing compassion and understanding to people who are happy to be here, but concerned about starting their lives over in a different place.

From getting here to becoming one of our own, refugees face many trials and struggles but with the help from local organizations, it gets a whole lot easier.

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