The American Dream has always concluded with a resident from another country raising his or her hand and officially transitioning to a naturalized American citizen.
However, more often than not, the American Dream has stopped short of becoming an American, and several local immigrant services organizations – including Centro Latino de Chelsea – are calling on the government to lower naturalization fees to spur more people to take the citizenship step.
“There are 8.5 million legal permanent residents nationwide who are eligible for citizenship and who aren’t doing so,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). “Fees have really increased over the years. In 1995, it was $97 and then $225 in 1998. It is now $680 including biometrics testing. If you look at low-income statistics, it takes two weeks and two days to pay for the Naturalization fees…We strongly believe citizenship and Naturalization are critical to the integration of immigrants and we’re calling for a lowering of these fees.”
U.S. Census figures from the latest American Community Survey (2009-2011) show that permanent residents in Chelsea (those with a so-called Green Card) have abysmal rates of becoming Naturalized Citizens.
Of the city’s total counted population, some 15,474 (45 percent) are foreign-born. Of that group, only 4,006 (25 percent) became Naturalized Citizens, while an astounding 11,741 (75 percent) never took that final step.
Additionally, more than half (51 percent) have been permanent residents for more than 10 years.
Juan Vega, of Centro Latino – who hosted the press conference last Friday morning – said there are a number of reasons why immigrants don’t choose to Naturalize, and certainly the current fee is one big reason.
“There are a number of things that delay people from becoming citizens in our view,” said Vega. “For many, it’s because of not speaking English, general fears people have, or a lack of understanding U.S. history. People need to understand these things are not insurmountable. The fee is not insurmountable either, but it does need revising. A shift needs to be made. A fee is understandable and there needs to be one, but it should be nominal and attainable. It’s to the point now that it’s unreachable for many and it’s only people with means who can achieve it.”
Vega also mentioned that there are hundreds of people across the nation and in Massachusetts who want to become citizens, but put it off because of financial reasons.
That fact is exactly what spawned the press conference and the collaborative effort between Centro Latino, the Irish International Immigrant Center, the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS) and MIRA. They have also allied with the National Partnership for New Americans, which produced a study last month on why more legal permanent residents don’t Naturalize.
One of the major reasons cited in the report was the high fee.
That was a reality explained Friday morning by Zilda Castro, a Brazilian immigrant who has operated a hair salon in Cambridge for many years. However, despite operating a business and living many years in the area, she never chose to become a citizen until 2011.
MAPS Director Paulo Pinto said Castro had to be convinced that the money was worth spending.
“Zilda was one of those people who had to be convinced it was worth spending the money because it is expensive,” he said. “When she saw all the benefits, she agreed after a long time contemplating it.”
Said Castro, “I finally feel like I’m home. I’ve been in business for a long time and I have wanted to be an American Citizen for a long time. It’s been the best decision of my life.”
And that’s what the group of organizations – also knowns as the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative – hopes more permanent residents will see, especially with a lower fee.