Rocio Rached and her three children just celebrated their anniversary of coming to the United States 21 years ago, on Sept. 13.
Originally from Mexico, the Long Beach mother has cut hair at The B Room Downtown since 2014. Her youngest recently graduated Cal State Long Beach, and they both became citizens in 2018.
A year later Rached cast a vote for Lena Gonzalez, who won a seat in the State Senate to represent Rached in her adopted beachside city.
“I felt really good, as you can imagine. It was my first time voting,” the 62-year-old said in her native Spanish, reflecting on all the puertas abiertas (open doors) being a U.S. citizen has offered her.
“You have the right to vote, to defend what you believe,” Rached added.
But as of Oct. 2, fewer people may be able to afford as smooth a path to citizenship and all the benefits that come with it.
On that date, the cost of applying online for citizenship will jump from $640 to $1,160. Costs for certain green card filings will increase by more than $300. Another immigration-related request will pass $4,000. (Fees listed on page 13). Fee waivers to help low-income immigrants offset costs will also be limited or, in some cases, cut entirely.
“Many people might, because of the prices, not be able to become citizens,” Rached said. “Or if they know they’re increasing, then they will become citizens (soon) to not pay so much.”
The Department of Homeland Security announced the new fees at the end of July, saying they help its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency meet operational needs and avoid a $1 billion shortfall. A lawsuit by immigration advocates is seeking to halt the fee spikes, arguing they violate immigrants’ due process and are invalid because the new fee rule was made by acting, not Senate-approved, department heads.
Some say USCIS’ move is part of an ongoing effort by the Trump Administration to pose more obstacles for immigrants.
“It was a tactic to really create a barrier, to make sure that packed lines of people who are wishing to become citizens can’t afford it,” said Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro CHA.
In Long Beach, Quintana and staff at her Latino-serving nonprofit find themselves scurrying to help local immigrants process as many applications as possible before the costly deadline strikes on Oct. 2. But they haven’t seen the public outcry that would usually accompany such a big change in immigration policy.
“It’s really sad because usually we would be hearing about this everywhere,” said Quintana. “There’s so much stuff right now, people are occupied with the pandemic, with the economic crisis, with the Census, so we don’t see a lot of public announcements out there.”
With fiscal aid from the State of California, Centro CHA has been helping people apply for citizenship at no cost, and is partnering with Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and La Raza 97.9 FM to get the word out.
“Our mayor is a citizen through naturalization,” Quintana said. “He’s a good person to promote this. So we’re going to get him to speak.”
While the Trump administration has executed hardline immigration policies, Quintana has noticed that the tense political climate has inspired more people to pursue their citizenship. Her nonprofit typically helps about 300 to 400 applicants a year now, more than before.
“It’s been high because now people want to become more active. They don’t like what’s happening,” Quintana said. “They want to make change in their local communities.”
Of the 65,297 non-citizens in Long Beach, 37.4% are estimated to be potentially eligible for naturalization, according to a 2018 report by New American Economy done in partnership with Long Beach’s Office of Equity.
Fee waivers had long assisted low-income immigrants apply for naturalization, green cards, or work permits. But the new USCIS rule also narrows the scope of who is eligible for them, and in some cases eliminates fee waivers altogether.
Immigrants are already “living paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to meet basic needs, to meet rent, food, cost-of-living, gas, car maintenance … sometimes they’re barely even able to cover that,” Quintana said. “So that dream of becoming a naturalized citizen is not going to become a reality.”
Long Beach immigrants tend to be found in low-wage sectors, such as housekeeping, truck driving, janitorial work, and cooking, even as they also have higher rates of entrepreneurship, the New American Economy report stated.
To avoid high-cost attorneys, notarios, and scams, Quintana recommended pursuing a trusted nonprofit for assistance. Her organization’s office can be contacted at 562-612-4180 for no-cost help with applying for immigrant-related benefits.
“We’ve seen clients, they’re almost 80 years old and they’re becoming naturalized citizens,” Quintana said. “We want to make sure they increase their potential to have better jobs, and engage in the community by being voters.”
Other proposed fee changes by USCIS include reductions for biometric services, certain appeals, the I-140 green card petition for an “Alien Worker” (reduced from $700 to $555), and more. But overall, the changes amount to a weighted increase of 20%, per USCIS calculations. They include increased genealogy fees, employment authorization fees that will jump from $410 to $550, suspension of deportation fees spiking from $285 to $1,810, and a first-ever fee for asylum seekers at $50.
The new asylum fee positions the United States alongside the only three other countries in the world who impose an asylum fee, the three being Iran, Fiji, and Australia.
Roughly 97% of USCIS’ revenue comes from fees.
The agency has reported financial holes during the COVID-19 epidemic and in May requested Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding.
The agency recently avoided furloughing 70% of its employees after a recent increase in applications and “unprecedented” spending cuts lifted the agency’s financial outlook. But the new spending cuts and furlough deferment will reportedly further stretch delays in an agency already badly backlogged.
“Aggressive spending reduction measures will impact all agency operations, including naturalizations,” USCIS said in a statement.
Rached said she understands the agency has to pay its bills.
“What is not reasonable is that they (the new fees) increase so much,” she said. She recommended the agency apply more moderate prices.
“Right now, with this crisis, with this pandemic, with this situation that is happening, it’s not going to be easy,” Rached added. “Hard times are coming.”
After her naturalization ceremony, Rached spent her new life as a citizen traveling the corners of the world, from France to Lebanon, from Indonesia to her native Mexico, all without having to be called that one word she long resented.
“I didn’t like how they’d call me ‘alien,’” Rached said. “I felt like I really was from another planet. That was one of the reasons why I got my citizenship.”
She recommended that those eligible apply for citizenship now.
“To not vote is to not create change,” Rached said. “That’s the point—to have the power to create change.”
Quintana said gaining citizenship has the power to change lives.
“They cry, it’s big for them,” she said. “They love this country, they love being here, they want to be welcomed as an American citizen here.”
Centro CHA recently hosted virtual workshops on USCIS’ changes with Spanish-speaking lawyers. For updates, information and videos of workshops, visit facebook.com/centrocha.