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New citizens are shown during the oath of allegiance at the naturalization ceremony at the Lancaster County Courthouse on Sept. 15, 2017. The costs of applying for U.S. citizenship are set to rise dramatically on Oct. 2, 2020.

THE ISSUE

As Enelly Betancourt, editor and staff writer for LNP Media Group’s Spanish language website La Voz Lancaster reported in Sunday’s LNP | LancasterOnline, immigrants seeking permanent status and citizenship in the United States face steep fees that are set to become even steeper. Betancourt reported that this summer, “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, announced it is increasing immigration fees, including adding a ($50) first-ever fee for asylum applicants and an increase for naturalization services beginning Oct. 2. With the change, the N-400 application fee will soar 83% to $1,170 for paper filing (or 81% to $1,160 if filed online).” The fee for biometric services — fingerprinting, photos, etc. — will drop, but not nearly enough to cover the hike in the application fee. Those fees are nonrefundable, “regardless of whether the application is approved or rejected,” Betancourt noted. The N-400 is an application for citizenship for those with permanent resident status.

Remember when President Ronald Reagan invoked the language of Puritan John Winthrop to describe the United States as a “shining city on a hill” for people around the globe facing danger and hardship?

He did so repeatedly, but perhaps most fully in his 1989 farewell address, when he explained how he envisioned that “shining city”: In “my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace ... and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Under the Trump administration, the doors have slammed shut on the shining city.

The U.S. has agreed to take in just 18,000 refugees this year — a precipitous drop from 110,000 in 2016, and an all-time low.

Now, with its plan to impose fees on asylum-seekers, another bolt has been placed on the doors. As an article in the Miami Herald noted, the U.S. will become “one of only four countries around the world that charge a fee for humanitarian protection.”

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “A refugee is a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. An asylee is a person who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry.” (The italics are ours.)

A $50 fee may not seem like a lot — unless you’ve lost everything you had, or never had much at all. And we’re talking about people seeking safety from dire circumstances. They shouldn’t be forced to pay an admission fee.

What they bring to a community cannot be quantified, as we’ve seen here in Lancaster County.

LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes recently chronicled the amazing achievements of Sheila Mastropietro, who retired last month after 33 years with Church World Service.

Mastropietro helped to resettle 6,000 asylum-seekers “from 37 countries plus 15 former Soviet republics in Lancaster and neighboring counties,” Hawkes reported, and oversaw the resettlement of “another 2,300 who came in a separate U.S. initiative from Cuba and Haiti.”

She got a broad range of Lancaster County places of worship involved in resettling refugees from countries including Syria and Myanmar, and together they created a county known for its welcoming spirit — a county that has flourished, in part, because of new residents working in existing businesses and creating new ones.

As Hawkes noted, “The diversity is astounding, with public schools here reporting over 70 languages spoken by students, giving Lancaster County a worldly identity belying its Pennsylvania Dutch image.”

We’ve seen Reagan’s vision realized here, and we’ve benefited richly from it.

Which makes the Trump administration’s decision to impose potentially prohibitive costs on immigrants and asylum-seekers so deeply disappointing.

Cost of citizenship

Then there are the exorbitant fee hikes being imposed on immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens — people who are following the rules, people Reagan described as having “the will and the heart” to get to this country.

As Betancourt reported, “the new cost to naturalize will hit a level that totals about a month’s worth of gross income for an immigrant making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That works out to $1,276 per month based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that the average American works 44 hours per week.”

“The process is a big financial commitment and it’s going to be very difficult for people, like my husband, who are waiting to meet the residence requirement,” Lisbeth Marte Pichardo, a Dominican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in July, told Betancourt. “They will need help with the fees because, let’s face it, even $640 is a lot of money for people with limited income, and in some cases you also have to pay the person who helps you fill out the application. Now he will have to pay a higher fee.”

And he’s an individual. Consider the obstacle these fees will represent to families with multiple members who hope to apply for citizenship.

Janet Tisinger, immigration legal services coordinator with the Lancaster office of Church World Service, told Betancourt that most of the fee waivers that allowed lower income immigrants to apply for naturalization at no cost are being eliminated as of Oct. 2.

Those waivers have served to even the path to citizenship.

“In the current grant period for this program, we have submitted 311 applications for citizenship. Of those, 67% qualified for a waived or reduced fee,” Tisinger told Betancourt. “With the elimination of fee waivers and reduced fee options, that’s 208 local individuals who may not be able to apply as a direct result.”

While some protected immigrants — victims of domestic violence or trafficking — thankfully still will be eligible for waivers, the fee increases “will prevent poorer immigrants, and correspondingly people of color, and the most vulnerable individuals and families seeking protection in the U.S. from obtaining legal status and citizenship for which they are eligible but merely for lack of money will not be able to obtain,” Tisinger said.

Which likely is the Trump administration's aim.

Here’s the thing: Few of our ancestors came to the U.S. with money. They came here to provide for family members still residing in their poor native countries, and to create better lives for their children. Some escaped famine, persecution, violence, oppression — but many came here just seeking opportunity.

They had the will and the heart to come here, so they came. And while they lacked wealth, they brought with them skills and ambition and a deep desire to serve their new nation.

Secure borders are necessary. Immigration procedures and rules are necessary. But slamming doors shut is not the American way — or the way of Lancaster County.