Defending Access to Citizenship

Beginning in 2017, the Trump administration began a serious assault on America’s immigration legal system. However, it was not until 2019 that the dream of citizenship came under serious attack. The most significant threats to naturalization emerged principally in the form of eliminating most fee waivers for low-income applicants, huge fee increases and the prospect of a new, more complicated citizenship test. During this time, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) and its advocacy partners were instrumental in stalling and ultimately defeating each of these measures.

In October 2019, the Department of Homeland Security proposed changes to the I-912 form and policy, which would have made it much harder for applicants to qualify for a fee waiver. Since many lawful permanent residents, or LPRs, are only able to naturalize using a full or partial fee waiver, the new I-912 would have placed American citizenship beyond their reach. CLINIC and its partners moved swiftly, and their first victory came in December 2019 as a litigant in City of Seattle v. Department of Homeland Security. The outcome of this case resulted in a temporary national injunction against the new proposed I-912 form and policy. The application of the injunction nationwide was possible due to the fact that CLINIC was able to show how the new form would negatively impact its affiliate network, the largest of its kind in the country and in 48 states.

Shortly after DHS’ attempts to change the fee waiver, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proposed fee increases to a long list of immigration benefits. For LPRs applying for citizenship, the fee to submit an N-400 application would have gone up to $1,170, an 83 percent increase. In response, CLINIC developed and promoted its fee-fighters toolkit encouraging organizations to submit comments on the negative impacts of the proposed fee increases. The fee-fighter toolkit was exceptionally successful and resulted in the submission of 10,000 of 30,000 total comments. CLINIC also joined as a co-plaintiff against the fee increases in the ILRC v. Wolf case, which was also ultimately successful in obtaining an injunction against all the fee increases.

In the summer of 2019, CLINIC and its partners learned about proposed changes to the citizenship test administered to applicants during their naturalization interview. The new test would have made the test more difficult by increasing the number of questions the applicant had to answer correctly. Changes to content and specific wording on questions would have made it harder for immigrants from non-English speaking countries to pass. Again, CLINIC encouraged and guided its network to submit comments, highlighting biases in changes to the test and how it would ultimately lead to fewer LPRs passing their citizenship test. Although the new test did ultimately go into effect, it was revoked shortly after the Biden administration came into office based on requests by CLINIC and other advocates. Today, CLINIC continues to lead working groups and discussions to help ensure that future revisions to the citizenship test are done fairly, in conjunction and with input from immigrant advocacy groups and those that specialize in adult and English language learning, and so that they do not create arbitrary restrictions or barriers to those seeking citizenship.

CLNIC applauds the two courts and the Biden administration’s decisions to ultimately terminate changes to the fee waiver, fee increases and the new citizenship test. Furthermore, CLINIC is encouraged by their statements to promote naturalization and continues to engage them in dialogue meant to advance citizenship accessibility. While the victories won to preserve citizenship should be celebrated, it must also be recognized that these victories have only preserved the status quo. The backlog of pending naturalization applications continues to be a major problem. At the end of fiscal year 2020 the backlog of N-400 applications was nearing one million1 and in many parts of the country applicants have to wait close to two years for their application to be processed. Additionally, the estimated number of LPRs that are currently eligible to naturalize is well over nine million and continues to grow.2 For those who do not qualify for the fee waiver, the cost to apply for naturalization remains prohibitive. CLINIC and its partners will need continue to work with the current administration, government officials and policy makers to address these issues and to encourage eligible LPRs to apply. Only when LPRs can easily and affordably apply and become naturalized citizens will substantial progress have been made to advance citizenship accessibility.

1 Congressional Research Service, ‘U.S. Naturalization Policy,’ May 3,2021. P. ii
2 Congressional Research Service, ‘U.S. Naturalization Policy,’ May 3,2021. P. 1