Democracy Denied: The Price Immigrants Pay To Vote

Co-authored by: Manuel PastorDirector, Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at University of Southern California


In the heat of the electoral season, there will be few things about which the Presidential candidates will agree – particularly on immigration policy.  There is, however, one area on which there has long been broad bipartisan support: encouraging eligible legal permanent residents (LPRs) to become citizens and vote.


There are currently 13.3 million LPRs, also known as green card holders, who live and work in the United States. After five years—or three if married to a citizen—green card holders become eligible to apply for American citizenship, granting them access to the rights, freedoms, protections, and responsibilities of natural-born citizens.


For those of us born in the U.S., becoming a citizen is straightforward: we get lucky in the birth lottery and are free to vote with no one grading our knowledge of American institutions. For immigrants, the passage is not so straightforward. An applicant must complete a 21-page application, submit fingerprints, pass a written and oral exam in English on American history and civics, and pay a fee before finally pledging their allegiance to our flag.


Many immigrants are scared of the test or concerned about their English abilities.  But focus groups – and careful data analysis – also suggests that the fee has been a deterrent. In 1999, the fee was $225; in today’s dollars, that would be around $320. But the cost has actually more than doubled in real value to $680, with the biggest hike coming in 2007 under President George W. Bush.


The hike had a predictable effect: there was a surge of applications to get in before the increase, following by a dramatic slump in applications. Today, 8.8 million legal permanent residents are eligible to apply for citizenship, but over the last four years, about 730,000 (or about 8 percent of those eligible) have naturalized each year.


Does the fee still matter? The dollar amount may not seem like much to middle-class Americans but with surging rent prices and stagnant wages, lower-income immigrants have to save for several months, and skip paying other bills, to afford citizenship for their family. Moreover, the gap between the costs of naturalization and the fee for green card renewal has grown – and renewal is easier since it requires no test and the approval rates are high.


But while the costs of renewing an individual’s green card may be low, the costs of leaving so many participants out of the process of civic engagement are high. Many New Americans are working hard to integrate into our society, but the current system is perpetuating an American underclass, legally here but frozen out of our democracy. It’s detrimental to immigrants, their communities, and our nation.


After years of advocacy by immigrant rights organizations, elected officials, and scholars, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has proposed a new fee structure. The revised rules include a modest increase to the overall naturalization fee to $720, but also include a 60 percent discount for those living between 150 and 200 percent of poverty, most of who are working poor. According to our estimates, around one million adults could qualify for this waiver – and those living under 150 percent of poverty (an additional 2.7 million) can apply for a full fee waiver.


This is a good start but there is more to be done. The federal government should ensure that waivers for citizenship are expanded and widely publicized – and make sure that the fee rolls over to pay for the green card renewal, should an applicant fail the naturalization test. USCIS should avoid working at cross-purposes; while some other fees may need to be hiked, doubling the cost for what is termed “derivative citizenship” (when minor children are naturalized along with their parents) will give many families pause. A bipartisan, multisector strategy to promote citizenship must also include municipal and state governments who can help provide English language and civics instruction; one model effort is Cities for Citizenship, co-chaired by Mayors Bill de Blasio, Rahm Emanuel, and Eric Garcetti.


Immigrants themselves seem willing to make the leap: during the first quarter of fiscal year 2016, there was a 14.5 percent year-over-year jump in naturalization applications, followed by a 27.7 percent year-over-year jump in the second quarter, partly because of nonpartisan campaigns to encourage citizenship and partly because of reactions to the current toxic rhetoric around immigrants.


In a country where just over half of eligible population is even registered to vote, there’s an eager population waiting in the wings to be a part of the process. It is our duty—enshrined in our nation’s founding documents—to promote and support the citizenship and civic participation of all eligible Americans. Citizenship deterred—whether by the prohibitive cost or other barriers— is democracy denied.


Joshua Hoyt is the Executive Director of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of 37 of the country’s largest immigrant rights organizations. Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, Director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), and Director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at USC.