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A Miami nonprofit is helping make citizenship more affordable

October 16, 2019
By Lautaro Grinspan

From the Miami Herald

For most of his life, Pierre-Denis Jean-Louis never felt the need to become a U.S. citizen. The Haitian native moved to South Florida with his family when he was seven years old, back in the 1990s. A green card soon followed, and the status of permanent resident became Jean-Louis’ new normal.

“I just wasn’t that interested in going through the citizenship process,” he said.

That started to change a couple of years ago when, as Jean-Louis put it, “the political climate became different.” Looking into the naturalization requirements early last year brought a surprise: the fee for the citizenship application was $725, a price tag that vastly exceeded what some of his relatives said they paid to become citizens in the ‘90s, when the fee amounted to less than $100.

“When I looked at the current fee, I was completely taken aback,” he said.

Around that time, Jean-Louis left a steady job at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. He faced bouts of unemployment. His income fluctuated: “I was afraid because I didn’t know how I was going to be able to save enough money in time to be able to pay the fee.”

The solution came in the form of a zero-interest, zero-fee loan that the local nonprofit Catalyst Miami helped make available. The money came from a new initiative — a Citizenship Lending Circle program — that Catalyst got off the ground last year in collaboration with Mission Asset Fund, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that works with credit-rating agencies. Only a handful of people have benefited from the program so far.

Its name notwithstanding, the Citizenship Lending Circle doesn’t actually function like a traditional lending circle: there’s no small group of people chipping in every month to lend money to one another. Instead, participants receive a check made out to the Department of Homeland Security for the full $725 naturalization fee as soon as they sign up. Then, over the course of the next 10 months, that money is paid back in small monthly installments of $70 to $75.

“Basically, what this lets people do is to get the citizenship process moving while they are still paying back on that microloan,” said Santra Denis, chief program officer at Catalyst Miami. “They don’t have to wait to put $725 together to become citizens.”

As Jean-Louis explained, borrowers can count on some flexibility when it comes to their payment schedule: “I found that even when I made a couple of errors in missing a payment [Catalyst Miami] made it their thing to help me get back on track. Usually, when you are given a loan, the collectors hound you and penalize you. Here, they were asking me, ‘What could work for you?’”

Although Denis touts the Citizenship Lending Circle’s ability to boost participants’ credit scores — each monthly payment is reported to every major credit bureau — the program’s principal objective is to make citizenship more accessible to South Florida’s eligible immigrants (in Miami-Dade County alone, that group numbers over 400,000, according to the Office of New Americans).

“One of our pillars at Catalyst Miami is making sure that people can feel like they can participate in our democracy, meaning they have the ability to vote and the ability to be civically engaged. And being a citizen is key to all that,” said Denis. “We realized that the rising cost of citizenship was becoming a big barrier for folks, so that’s why it made sense for us to bring this product on.”

When Jean-Louis took the oath of citizenship last month, it was a happy moment, but not a thrilling one. “I guess I felt all along like I had been an American,” he said.

A FINANCIAL BARRIER TO CITIZENSHIP

Immigration attorneys and advocates agree that the price tag of naturalization, which has risen by over 1000% since 1989, plays a significant role in holding down the number of new Americans.

“The high cost of a citizenship application is probably the number one reason why individuals don’t file more quickly,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services (CLS) for the Archdiocese of Miami. It’s a statement that a 2018 study by Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab appears to confirm, with the paper’s lead researchers finding that low-income immigrants who are granted fee vouchers to cover application costs are twice as likely to apply for citizenship.

Upping the stakes in the citizenship accessibility debate is the fact that there are significant, proven benefits conferred by naturalization, with many of those benefits being economic in nature.

“We know that there’s an immediate increase in your income by 11% versus green card holders,” said Krystina François, executive director of Miami-Dade County’s Office of New Americans. “We know that there is a higher rate of homeownership. Obviously your children may be eligible for additional financial aid that they may not originally have been able to get. So it really opens up economic opportunities.”

Elina Magaly Santana, an immigration lawyer in Miami, said the citizenship application fee, though “hefty,” is “an expense worth making.”

BORROWING TO PAY THE APPLICATION FEE OR APPLYING FOR A WAIVER?

Technically, the cost of becoming a citizen isn’t $725 for everyone. For low-income immigrants who are eligible for a fee waiver from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), naturalization is free.

But enduring confusion around the so-called public charge rule — which federal judges recently blocked — is making some eligible immigrants think twice about applying for waivers, even though the rule in question never applied to folks seeking citizenship. Instead, the policy’s aim was to deny access to green cards and visas to applicants who have used or might in the future need public assistance.

But it isn’t hard to see why citizenship applicants would be wary of fee waivers, since the easiest way to prove waiver-eligibility is to produce receipts of means-tested public benefits like food stamps, Supplemental Social Security Income, or Medicaid — the same set of programs at the heart of the public charge debate.

“In the current environment with public charge, there’s not going to be a lot of people on those services, which they can get the fee waiver through,” said Denis. “So [the Citizenship Lending Circle] could be seen by them as an alternative way to pay the naturalization fee.”

Newfound reticence around the fee waiver — along with “an uptick in interest” in programs like the Citizenship Lending Circle — is something that Vanessa Joseph “[has] been noticing a lot.” A lawyer with Catholic Legal Services with a focus on citizenship, Joseph recently conducted a series of outreach sessions about the naturalization process.

“It did come up a lot,” she said. “People are asking: ‘How does the public charge rule affect me as I’m applying for naturalization? If I can’t afford the [application] fee, what should I do? […] Could getting a fee waiver affect my situation?’”

When facing this line of questioning from the community, Joseph sets the record straight: the public charge rule does not take aim at permanent residents applying for citizenship; and the only downside that comes with requesting a fee waiver is a slightly longer processing time.

“If the eligibility for a fee waiver is there and you can’t pay, then sure, do a fee waiver. The only issue that comes up with that is they have to adjudicate the fee waiver before they adjudicate the application. So it creates a delay,” she said. “But there’s no drawback connected to public charge. That doesn’t exist. It’s only a matter of timing.”

Joseph attributes the confusion to a distorted understanding of the now-stalled public charge rule’s scope.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that is being spread through social media and of course through individuals who are providing information without having all of the facts,” she said. “It happens quite often in immigrant communities.”

A LOOMING THREAT TO FEE WAIVERS

If misinformation played a role keeping citizenship seekers from financial assistance in the past, a policy change actually targeting fee waivers is expected to significantly reduce access to waivers, and naturalization, in the future.

That’s because a proposal floated by the Trump administration earlier this year would revamp the eligibility criteria for the waivers, eliminating proof of means-tested benefits as a way to qualify for relief. USCIS would still offer to drop fees for applicants who can demonstrate that they earn a very low income, or suffer financial hardship, through other means.

Critics of the rule change say that, by scrapping the fastest way for people to prove their income is low, the proposal would muddle the process of getting a waiver, potentially discouraging qualified applicants.

“For most people, the easiest way to show that you cannot afford something is to give proof of the social benefits that you are receiving, whether it’s Medicaid or your food stamps,” said Joseph. “What we are going to see is [the need for] much more articulation of the reasons why you are unable to afford the fee. It won’t be as much a chilling effect out of fear but more so out of the hassle. It would be discouraging.”

For more information on the Citizenship Lending Circle program, reach out to Catalyst Miami’s Vaughan Johnson by dialing 786-527-2579.

This article originally appeared in Miami Herald.