Rafael Ujueta left his native Colombia six years ago and embarked on his own to the United States with his goal to one day join the growing number of U.S. citizens.
After finishing his five years as a resident, Ujueta said he felt a strong desire to feel fully accepted in this country. Ujueta studied for months to take the citizenship test. He works in maintenance at a local school in Maryland and is hoping to bring his wife from Colombia to accompany him in the near future.
“It was fundamental for me to become a U.S. citizen. It was the best thing that happened to me,” he said.
At Casa de Maryland, an immigration advocacy organization in the Washington metro area, Ujueta learned there were options to apply for the New American Loan Fund that would help him pay for the $680 citizenship application fee. Since his appointment with one of the counselors at Casa de Maryland, it was just a couple months until he took the exam and officially became a citizen.
“I would have delayed some time,” said Ujueta. “In those days, I had lost my job and I didn’t have $680.”
The micro loan program helps alleviate the burden of the application fee. The program also provides financial coaching and allows the individuals to report to a credit bureau therefore preparing them for monetary stability. The loans are repaid over six months, which averages out to $120 payments per participant.
The National Council of La Raza, which is affiliated with the micro loan model, is partnering with several community based organizations to promote this incentive considering that the costs have surged exponentially.
The cost of naturalization application fees increased 610 percent between 1998 and 2008. In addition to the application fees, there are also legal services that are attached to the process that amount to the financial barriers immigrants face when they want to gain citizenship.
It’s also part of the reason why the number of applicants for U.S. citizenship declined sharply after the most recent increase in application costs, from 1.4 million in 2007 to 526,000 in 2008. These costs support the U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services and it has remained stable under the Obama administration.
Sarah Curry, manager of integration programs at the National Immigration Forum, a national organization that advocates for federal immigration policies, said more people seek help with citizenship applications than they actually file.
“We watch a lot of folks go through the line to receive citizenship assistance. At the end of the day the hope is that you seal the envelope and send out that application with the $680 fee. But we have a lot of folks who are walking away with those envelopes and they’re not going to mail them in for another year or more because they cannot afford the application cost,” said Curry.
In a survey of 1,000 Latinos in California, more than half of eligible noncitizens report unaffordability as a primary reason for not pursuing naturalization.
Of the noncitizens surveyed, 47 percent overwhelmingly lacked access to traditional forms of credit, 38 percent were unlikely to have a bank account and 13.4 percent were likely to have experienced unemployment in the last year.
The NCLR study highlights that non-citizens are affected more by the economic recession. There are cases like Eugenio Chavez Ramos, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico. He moved to El Paso, Texas from Washington in search of a better wage in the construction industry.
“At the time, the work load was low and there wasn’t sufficient money to pay for citizenship and pay for my mortgage. That’s why I asked them if they could help me and they did,” he said.
The company he works for covered the fees and Chavez Ramos naturalized in 2011.
The small payment loan programs are running in North Carolina, San Francisco and Maryland to help build financial assistance for immigrant youth and adults.
Janis Bowdler, director of the Wealth building policy project of NCLR, added that the micro loan programs are really serving as a model for USCIS to consider. To take it to scale, she said they need federal and private support.
Bowdler explained that the number of persons applying for deferred action is another area of demand they hope will propel more support for these programs. The costs for an application of deferred action is $465. At the Latino Community Credit Union in North Carolina and Mission Asset Fund in California, she said dreamers can apply for such type of loans and similar options might be available at local credit unions.
“The conversations have just begun,” she said. “We have the ingredients that we need to expand these programs. I think it’s ultimately to get the level that we want we would need federal support, but that’s not going to inhibit us from getting started.”
There are an estimated 8.5 million immigrants who are eligible for citizenship, but have not taken all the steps necessary to naturalize, according to NCLR.
Ujueta would have been one of them, but he couldn’t stop expressing his gratitude for the help he received from the loan program. It changed his life giving him the ability to aspire and move up the ranks in his employment.
“As a person, I feel like it’s a challenge. For an immigrant, it’s a challenge in this country that has opened the doors to people where there are so many possibilities to grow as a person. Therefore, being a U.S. citizen is like arriving at your limit—a limit of acceptance,” he said.