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Originally published February 14, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 14, 2013 at 9:23 PM

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High fees may block path to U.S. citizenship

In a year when Congress is set to consider a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, a new report suggests 20 percent of the 8.5 million now eligible for citizenship, have not sought it because of the high cost.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Over the years, people gathering petition signatures outside grocery stores and shopping malls would ask Elena Juarez if she was a citizen and could sign some referendum or another.

The Spanish-language interpreter has always had to say no. A legal permanent resident since 1995, Juarez would have been eligible by 2000 to become a U.S. citizen — able to vote, hold a federal job or even run for some public offices — but she’d never given serious thought to applying.

By the time she did five years ago, the nearly $700 cost to naturalize was out of her reach financially — and apparently out of the reach of one in five of the estimated 8.5 million green-card holders who are eligible to be citizens.

Some 170,000 of those immigrants live in Washington state.

In a year when Congress may actually consider creating a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, a new report that came out Thursday suggests 20 percent of those here legally who qualify for citizenship have not sought it because of the high cost.

The report cites it as the No. 2 reason immigrants don’t seek naturalization, followed by a lack of English skills.

Advocates, saying citizenship should not be a privilege of wealthy immigrants, want Congress to also consider funds to defray its cost of citizenship — potentially a tough sell given the already divisive nature of immigration talks.

“It’s not enough to address the problem of the undocumented immigrant,” said Joshua Hoyt, co-chair of the National Partnership for New Americans, which commissioned the study. “As a nation, we need to examine what happens next.”

Craig Keller, of Respect Washington, which is gathering initiative signatures to stop illegal immigration in the state, said he’s not convinced that people who really want citizenship can’t afford it.

“They surely would scrimp and save that amount — akin to one month’s rent ... even if they have to save up over five years of permanent residency to pay for it,” he said.

He questions the motivation of immigrant-advocacy groups, saying their real goal is to “stuff the ballot box by herding a dependency class of mercenary immigrants.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers naturalization, visa and other immigrant services, depends on user fees for 95 percent of its budget.

A report three years ago by Congressional Research Service found higher fees may not reduce the number of applicants as much as change the makeup of those applying.

Congress last raised the application fee for naturalization, to $595, in 2007, up from $330.

An additional $85 for biometrics brings the total to $680, which “represents about three weeks of take-home pay for a minimum-wage worker,” said Manuel Pastor, of the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, which did the study.

Learning English is also a part of the cost of naturalization, the authors say. They maintain that greater percentages of qualified immigrants applied for citizenship when costs were lower.

Most affected, they say, are low-income and less-educated people, whose applications for citizenship tend to decline when prices rise.

Immigrants, they say, can realize an increase in earnings of between 8 percent and 11 percent in the years following naturalization, in part because of better employment opportunities and increased job mobility.

The government offers fee waivers based on income for those unable to pay, but advocates say that’s not enough to cover the need.

Besides a lack of English skills, immigrants don’t apply for citizenship because they don’t understand it, don’t see the need, have strong allegiance to home countries or have criminal backgrounds that would disqualify them. Applying for citizenship can trigger deportation for immigrants with certain criminal convictions.

Juarez, who is originally from Nicaragua, obtained her citizenship in 2011, after she learned about the waiver.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that I could be deported at anytime if something happened,” she said.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @turnbullL.

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