U.S. citizenship doesn’t come cheap

The number of legal immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship is skyrocketing in Washington, reflecting a national trend.

A looming fee spike, an exam overhaul and the repercussions of recent immigration proposals have prompted more people to seek citizenship, officials and experts said.

Starting July 30, a citizenship application will cost $675. That’s up 69 percent from $400. Many other fees are set to jump, as well. For instance, fees for green cards will almost triple, increasing from $395 to $1,010.

The new fees could make it tougher for poorer immigrants to attain citizenship, immigration advocates said.

People now are filing citizenship paperwork to avoid the fee increase. In May, 115,175 people applied for citizenship nationwide, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That’s up about 54 percent from 74,583 in May 2006.

In Washington, the agency’s Seattle office received 1,896 citizenship applications in May. That’s up 33 percent from 1,430 in May 2006.

On Monday, 89 people from 32 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens in a brief ceremony in Seattle.

Sareth McDonald, 25, of Everett obtained citizenship after living in the U.S. for about 23 years. Her father told her to do so before the application fee increases, said McDonald, a Cambodian married to a U.S. citizen.

“Maybe they are trying to make it harder for other people to come here,” she said of the new fees.

Ghulam Sarwar, 54, originally from Bangladesh, said he has lived in America for seven years, and it was time to become a citizen.

Sarwar, of Lynnwood, waited seven months for the paperwork to go through, but applying later would’ve hurt his pocketbook.

“It saves me a lot of money,” he said.

Snohomish County, which has a population of about 670,000, is growing with immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Between 2000 and 2006, Snohomish County became home to more people from foreign countries than any other county in Washington except King County.

The latest census numbers show 14,182 people moved to Snohomish County from foreign countries over the last six years. That compares with 78,631 in King County.

Federal workers are now spending six to eight months to process a citizenship application, said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The fee increase will allow the agency to hire more workers and process applications faster, Rummery said.

Federal laws and policies – not the lack of manpower – are causing delays in applications, said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The Seattle-based nonprofit group helps low-income immigrants apply for citizenship and visas.

When a U.S. citizen applies for a green card for their spouse living abroad, it sometimes takes years to bring the spouse to America, Adams said.

In June, a major immigration bill failed in the U.S. Senate, following months of heated debate mostly centered on illegal immigrants. But the bill also would have affected the lives of legal immigrants, Adams said.

“There is the greater uneasiness that causes legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship,” he said.

To become citizens, immigrants need to be legal permanent residents who have lived in the country for at least five years. Applicants must have a clean criminal record. They also have to pass civics and English tests.

Immigration officials are redesigning the civics test to better reflect the nation’s values and history, Rummery said. The new tests are set to start in summer 2008.

“We want to provide a test that’s not necessarily harder, but more meaningful,” she said.

Many immigrants worry that the new test will be harder, said Joyce Yoo, naturalization manager for Korean Women’s Association.

The Tacoma-based group has an office in Lynnwood and helps immigrants with legal issues. The group also is advising immigrants to apply for visas and citizenship before July 30 to save money.

Everett immigration attorney Rob Trickler said legal immigrants have contacted his office about green cards over the past few weeks. Some may not be able to afford the cost, he said.

“If they are coming to me, there’s a fee on top of” the government fees, he said. “You are talking about a significant amount of money.”

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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