Immigrant Advocates and NYC Comptroller Want Subsidies for Citizenship Applications

A Make the Road New York rally to support the immigrant community. Make the Road New York/Facebook

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and 80 immigrant rights organizations, community leaders and advocates urged Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to establish Stringer’s proposed “New York City Citizenship Fund,” which would cover escalating application fees for immigrant New Yorkers—which the comptroller argued would allay fears amid President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration enforcement agenda.

In a letter to Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal dated May 29, Stringer and the advocates recommended that the city set up a public-private program that would cover the full $725 application fee for immigrants with a household income between 150 and 300 percent of poverty, or incomes of less than $61,260 a year for a family of three. Stringer noted federal waivers are already available for those who make less than 150 percent of the poverty line.

They praised Agarwal’s agency for already providing legal services to many immigrants seeking to become citizens through the NYCCitizenship program—but asserted that the Citizenship Fund would take the city’s efforts a step further.

“Thanks to your leadership, the city is already providing legal services to many immigrants interested in becoming U.S. citizens through the NYCitizenship program,” they wrote. “Without reducing these services, the city’s commitment to promoting citizenship could be strengthened by creating a program that pays the cost of filling paperwork with the federal government.”

They argue that with an investment of $20 million, the city could cover the full application cost for roughly 35,000 immigrants. And they insist that even more New Yorkers could benefit if the program is structured as a public-private partnership “that could leverage charitable funds for this purpose.”

“We believe that doing so would help even more immigrant New Yorkers enjoy the benefits of citizenship, which include voting rights, legal protections, more job opportunities, and higher wages,” they wrote.

Among the signatories are the New York Immigration Coalition, immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, Haitian Americans United for Progress, Muslim Community Network, Federation of Italian-American Organizations, Legal Aid Society, Coalition for Asian American Children and Families and the Council of African Imams.

There are as many as 670,000 immigrants in the city who are eligible to become citizens but have not applied, partially due to the high costs, according to the letter. The $725 fee, they said, has increased by more than 500 percent since 1989—and the additional costs for legal services and English classes add to the pile, they said.

Stringer’s office estimates that 180,000 immigrant New Yorkers would be eligible and that—with an initial investment of $20 million—the application could be subsidized for 35,000 New Yorkers at that income level.

The comptroller first shared the new policy proposal with Agarwal in a May 12 letter, in which he said a special fund for private contributions could be set up within the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. He also noted that the Mayor’s Fund was already working with Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to support NYCitizenship, but said that it was not directly funding the federal application costs.

In a statement, Stringer said that since Trump’s inauguration, families throughout the five boroughs have been “holding their breath, hoping and praying they won’t be split apart.”

Trump’s immigration agenda has included two executive orders barring entry to people from Muslim-majority countries that have since been blocked, a proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border and expanding immigration detention. Parts of his executive order withholding funding for so-called “sanctuary cities” for immigrants were recently blocked. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently sought to further illuminate the terms of the executive order.

“New Yorkers are deeply fearful that a stroke of a pen in the Oval Office will forever change their lives,” he said. “If we want to fight back against this White House, if we want to stand up for our neighbors, this is a common-sense way to do it. This new fund can be reality, and we’re thrilled and thankful to see so many advocates, organizations, and community leaders standing behind it.”

Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said that they “deeply appreciate” the importance of access to citizenship services “particularly in this political climate.”

“Citizenship is a win-win for cities and communities, and a key priority for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs through programs such as NYCitizenship,” Boeglin said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to further discussing the critical work of creating pathways to citizenship for more New Yorkers.”