This week during National Citizenship Day, the nation commemorates those who have become, or are in the process of becoming, U.S. citizens. But the reality of the current path to citizenship isn’t always consistent with the celebratory tone of this commemoration. For too many individuals, the path to citizenship is a difficult process, and an individual’s ability to pay their application fee can be both a daunting and prohibitive factor.
The application cost alone ballooned 610 percent between 1998 and 2008, to $680. But an applicant’s expenses don’t stop at the application fee; immigrants pursuing the American Dream have additional expenses for English classes, civics preparation and legal filing assistance, all of which can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the process. The snowballing expenses are virtually impossible for low-income legal permanent residents and families who may have multiple members applying to afford.
While the Department of Homeland Security has fee waivers in place for low-income immigrants, many people do not qualify. Too often, Latino families must decide between stretching their application process out over months or even years until they have saved enough money, or turning to quick (and often predatory) loans if their situation is time-sensitive. In addition, the lack of financial education and information about safe, affordable loan products leaves legal permanent residents vulnerable to financial instability just as they are starting this new chapter. According to NCLR’s Banking in Color research, 56% of U.S. citizens reported having both a checking and savings account, while only 33% of noncitizens had both. And only 24 percent of noncitizens knew their credit score, compared to 40 percent of citizens.
To address these barriers, NCLR and its Affiliates, with support from Citi and the Citi Foundation, have developed an initiative that combines financial capability with immigration legal services. This national initiative enables citizenship applicants to overcome financial barriers and enter the financial mainstream. The program links two proven concepts—naturalization application assistance and financial coaching. Legal permanent residents receive both citizenship application assistance and financial coaching on household budgeting and savings, credit and how to build and maintain good credit, and savings or loan products that can help them cover the cost of the application.
Citizenship is an asset that greatly enhances the lives of both the immigrants who go through the naturalization process and the communities in which they live. On a macro level, NCLR calculates that if all 8.8 million eligible legal permanent residents naturalized, U.S. Gross National Product would increase by an estimated $25 billion. For individuals, research from the University of Southern California and others indicates that naturalized immigrants can realize an 11 percent boost in personal income once they’ve become citizens.
The participants in the NCLR Affiliate program see firsthand the economic benefits of an integrated services approach. David Angulo, originally from El Salvador, received information about budgeting, saving, and credit as part of his ESL classes at our Affiliate, Hispanic Unity. While preparing for citizenship, he went to one-on-one coaching sessions for help removing errors on his credit report and opening a money market account to save for a house. Mr. Angulo became an American citizen on December 19, 2014, and hopes to save enough by the end of 2015 for a down payment on his first home.
Financial capability services through trusted community institutions like NCLR Affiliates helps legal permanent residents begin their journey toward the American Dream—citizenship, prosperity, success, and economic security. Let this National Citizenship Day be a call to action to support policies, programs, and people who help aspiring Americans enter U.S. citizenship on strong financial footing.