Apr 4, 2023 - News

How Massachusetts advocates are curbing the high cost of citizenship

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin from a hundred dollar bill peaking out from behind an "open" American flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Immigration advocates and local officials are tackling the cost barriers that keep thousands of Massachusetts residents from obtaining citizenship.

Why it matters: The Boston metropolitan area has some 230,000 lawful permanent residents who, despite being eligible, haven’t taken steps toward obtaining citizenship, in part because of the costs.

  • That includes 30,000 people in Boston, local officials say.

The bottom line: The application and biometric fees cost about $725 today — nearly double from 15 years ago.

  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to increase the cost to $760.
  • The process can cost upwards of $10,000 for those who get attorneys.

What’s happening: The nonprofit Project Citizenship is hosting citizenship clinics for eastern Massachusetts residents. The first was last Saturday at the Reggie Lewis Track & Athletic Center in Boston, with help from the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement (MOIA).

  • Volunteers helped immigrants fill out application forms, while pro bono attorneys reviewed the forms.
  • Boston-based nonprofit One Percent of America offered 1%-interest loans at the clinic to cover the application costs.
  • The group is also hosting clinics in Cambridge, Lawrence, New Bedford, Lowell, Brockton, on the Cape and in other communities, says Mitra Shavarini, executive director of Project Citizenship.
Monique Nguyen, executive director of the city's office for immigrant advancement, stands in the bleachers. The citizenship clinic is visible in the background.
Monique Nguyen, executive director of MOIA, at Saturday's Citizenship Day clinic. The event drew hundreds of applicants and 300 volunteers. Photo: Steph Solis

What they’re saying: “I’m thinking about 30,000 people that could vote, 30,000 people who might be wanting to go to college, but they can’t afford it; they can’t access financial aid,” says Monique Nguyen, executive director of MOIA.

The other side: USCIS collects millions of dollars in filing fees for all sorts of immigration petitions because its office relies on that money to function, says Denis Riordan, district director for USCIS. About 96% of the agency’s funding comes from those fees.

  • “The entire process is for the most part smooth, and there’s nothing more joyful than being part of a naturalization ceremony, bringing people to that point,” Riordan says of the citizenship process, “but again we are a fee-funded agency.”

Zoom in: Maria Wilda Camero, who emigrated from the Philippines at age 11, waited for years to obtain her citizenship in part because of money. Then she saw an ad for the clinic while riding the Green Line.

  • “I’m very fortunate now that I have an amazing job that I could swing this,” says Camero, a Burlington resident who is now assistant director of financial aid at Boston University’s School of Law.
  • The cost is “exorbitant,” she added, but she was glad to see OPA’s loan option and other resources available for locals today.

What's next: Project Citizenship's next citizenship workshops are May 17 in Cambridge, June 17 in Lawrence, Sept. 16 in New Bedford, Oct. 7 in Lowell, Oct. 21 in Springfield, Nov. 4 in Brockton, Nov. 18 in Cape Cod and sometime in December in Somerville.


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