The economics of filing an application for U.S. citizenship

According to a recent blog published by the Harvard Business Review, each year 90% of 8 million legal residents eligible to become US citizens choose not to do so. Why? What is holding back this significant contingent of U.S. residents from claiming the benefits of citizenship, including the right to vote, apply for a U.S. passport, work for the U.S. government, and apply for certain kinds of federal support? Could it be that the exorbitant cost of the citizenship application is preventing immigrants from taking the plunge?

In 1990 the US citizenship application fee was $90. Today the US citizenship application fee is $695. That’s six hundred and ninety-five dollars! And no, it’s not your imagination, that seems an unusually high figure to charge a group of people who have already been granted the right to remain in the U.S. permanently for the ability to take the final step and join the citizenry of their adopted country. By way of comparison, comparable fees in Australia and Canada are around $200. Anyway you slice it, it’s a lot of money and an understandable disincentive to apply for naturalization.

But if you are one of these 8 million legal residents who choose to forego making an application for U.S. citizenship each year -and if you are choosing not to apply for citizenship for economic reasons, I’d like you to take a few moments and reexamine that decision. Is it fiscally sound to decline U.S. citizenship on the basis of the application’s expense?

Although the status of a Lawful Permanent Resident (Green Card holder) never expires, the card itself does. All Form I-551 Alien Registration Cards (Green Cards) issued after August 1989 are valid for a period of ten years. Legal Permanent Residents are required to renew their Green Cards prior to their expiration. And the cost to renew the card is $370. Granted, the cost of renewing a Green Card is almost half the cost of applying for citizenship, but to think that filing a Green Card renewal application instead of a citizenship application will save you money is to apply a very shortsighted calculation.

Once you are a citizen, you are a citizen for life. Unless you renounce your U.S. citizenship voluntarily, you will find that it is very difficult to lose citizenship. As a Green Card holder, you are required to maintain certain residence requirements, and you may be deported for committing certain crimes. But as a citizen, you take your place with a sizeable, yet nevertheless elite, community of individuals with certain inalienable rights. Absent acts of treason, you may remain in this community for as long as you choose.

As a Green Card holder, you will need to renew that card every ten years for the rest of your life. If you file your first renewal application at age 35, you can expect to have spent at least $1,480 on renewal applications by the time you are 75 – and that is assuming that fees do not go up… and there is quite simply no chance at all that fees will not go up.

In September, 2009, Alejandro Mayorkas, the new director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the agency is considering raising immigration fees again in the near future. This, despite the fact that the last fee increase, which represented a 69% hike, occurred less than two years ago. Although the number of US citizenship applications dropped 50 percent in the two years after the last fee increase, USCIS seems slow to suspect that there may be a connection between increased fees and a drop in applications, along with its proportional drop in revenue.

Regardless of when fees go up, you can rest assured that they will go up. And individuals who are eligible to file citizenship applications but who choose to postpone the expense are likely to find that the expense will increase sooner than later. Over the years, that $300 you save now by filing an application to renew your Green Card instead of applying for citizenship will be repaid to the U.S. government many times over.

All of which is to say: apply for citizenship! Apply now! Do not postpone this important step. The fact that there are millions of individuals who are living in the U.S. and who are eligible to apply for citizenship, but choose not to, fills me with a mixture of regret and awe at the promise of so much untapped potential.  Our country needs you. We need your vote, and your voice. Help shape the future of immigration reform and future policy. Search your resources and file your citizenship application soon, before fees get even more out of hand and out of reach. I wonder how many people who were eligible when the fee was only $90 have yet to apply for U.S. citizenship, and who will still have not applied when the fee is double what it is today.