Immigration

NYC citizenship fund would help welcome new Americans

Steven Choi and Scott Stringer on why New York City should subsidize the citizenship process for modest-income immigrants

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Statue of Liberty Baehrel Raphael/Shutterstock

With immigrant communities across the New York City at risk of being torn apart by President Donald Trump’s immoral immigration policies, helping more of our friends and neighbors become citizens can keep families and communities together, grow our economy and make our city stronger.

That’s why it’s so important that the New York City Council recently took the first step toward creating a New York City Citizenship Fund with a $3 million commitment in their proposed budget to help more New Yorkers cover the cost of applying for citizenship – an idea first proposed by the comptroller’s office in a 2016 report, Opening The Golden Door: Lowering the Cost of Citizenship in the Immigrant Capital of the World, which was updated last year to reflect new information.

New York City currently has 670,000 residents – about 20 percent of our immigrant population – who are eligible for naturalization. These are people who work hard every day, pay their taxes and want nothing more than to raise a family in a society where everyone has a fair and equal shot at success. But many haven’t been able to take the final step toward citizenship because of the cost barriers.

That’s because, as the comptroller’s report makes clear, the federal fees associated with the citizenship application have skyrocketed 500 percent since 1989, to $725. Add in the cost of English language classes, attorneys and time away from work, and the cost for naturalization can easily run in the thousands of dollars.

When you’re a family making $50,000 a year, supporting your kids, paying your rent and covering your medical bills, that’s an added burden that is often too heavy to bear, especially in a city where the cost of living continues to outpace wage gains.

So New York City should send a message: no family should have to choose between putting food on the table and applying for citizenship. We cannot, and should not, be a country that puts up extreme financial barriers to becoming an American.

That’s the point of the New York City Citizenship Fund – to eliminate the cost of the application fee for those who are living below 300 percent of the poverty line, or incomes of roughly $61,000 per year for a family of three. We estimate there are about 180,000 New York City immigrants who would be eligible.

This isn’t just about helping our immigrant communities; this is about supporting the city’s economy. Immigrants earn $100 billion a year in income, or roughly one-third of all income in New York City. More than 83,000 are business owners, strengthening our local neighborhood economies and creating wealth in every corner of the city.

Finally, we have all learned the hard way how important it is to remain engaged in our democracy. Increasing access to citizenship for our most vulnerable groups of residents will also help to ensure that more people can fully participate in our democracy and bring the voice of our diverse communities to the forefront.

At the same time, though, we all know that Trump is trying to take us backward by targeting immigrants where they live, work and pray. Families are fearful, and with good reason. Just recently, federal immigration officials arrested 225 people in a sweeping six-day raid in the New York City metropolitan area, many of them with no outstanding legal issues beyond their immigration status.

In the face of this aggression, we have a moral, economic and social imperative to keep New York City a place that welcomes all. The best way to do that now is to help more people become citizens, so let’s make the New York City Citizenship Fund a reality and start bestowing the rights and privileges of citizenship on more people. Doing so will make New York City – and our nation – a better, stronger home for all.

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