The U.S. naturalization process has a long way to go before it is fair for all. Yet, ten years after CLINIC published A More Perfect Union: A National Citizenship Plan, many naturalization services and policies have evolved significantly.
A More Perfect Union noted that the United States lacked a coherent immigrant integration policy or coordinated program to promote citizenship. Drawing from the knowledge of more than 100 experts, CLINIC outlined a strategy for a national initiative to naturalize and integrate as many eligible immigrants as possible. We identified the roles of government, immigrant service agencies and many other sectors of society in a coordinated plan. We also called for more funding for naturalization and the removal of barriers to citizenship.
Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is in its ninth year of funding citizenship education and legal services. The USCIS citizenship grant program has awarded $73 million in federal funds to community-based organizations since 2009 and helped more than 190,000 lawful permanent residents prepare for citizenship to date. Many CLINIC affiliates have benefited from the program’s steady funding, which has greatly expanded their citizenship services.
In keeping with recommendations found in A More Perfect Union for greater collaboration and coordination of naturalization efforts, CLINIC joined seven other national, immigrant-supporting nonprofits to create the New Americans Campaign in 2011. Generously funded by several private foundations, NAC is a national, collaborative initiative now operating in 18 metropolitan areas. It seeks to increase the number of people applying for naturalization through the use of expanded partnerships, mass communication, technology and innovation. NAC has helped more than 280,000 people apply for naturalization over the last six years, and is expanding its reach into more cities in 2018. Through NAC and other initiatives, CLINIC has provided more than $15 million in naturalization funding to its affiliates and other local partners.
Furthermore, while the fee to apply for citizenship has increased by more than 81 percent since 2007, advocacy by CLINIC and others has led to a more affordable and accessible naturalization process. A federal fee waiver application form and detailed policy guidance now make it easier for low income applicants to obtain a fee waiver. USCIS implemented a new fee reduction for naturalization in 2016 for those whose income is too high to qualify for a full fee waiver, but too low to afford the full application fee. In addition, the citizenship test has been revamped and standardized, emphasizing important U.S. history and civics information needed to be an informed citizen. The national pass rate for those taking the naturalization test is 91 percent, and CLINIC affiliates often report a higher rate for their clients due to better screening and support. USCIS has created a wealth of test preparation materials available on its website along with trainings and other resources for citizenship teachers and community-based organizations.
Citizenship remains vitally important for our democracy; and while we are happy to report the good work has been done over the last 10 years, there is much more to be done. New information from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the immigrant population continues to grow and diversify, and that immigrants now comprise 13.5 percent of the U.S. population. Now more than ever, we need informed, engaged citizens and we need to take deliberate steps to fully integrate the foreign-born in our local communities. CLINIC is committed to working with our partners not only in these areas, but to seek improvements to the backlog and costs of naturalization as well. The United States’ strength and vitality depends on it.