Can Low-Income Immigrants Afford Citizenship?

Immigration reform promises millions a path to citizenship, but will some be left out because it's too expensive?

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 19, 2013

***[For updates as we work through the bill’s details, follow our What’s in the Bill tag.](*** The immigration reform bill from the Senate’s Gang of Eight imposes some pretty high barriers on applicants to the path to citizenship. I’ve already written on [some of these]( Though advocates for immigration reform talk about citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, each new barrier cuts another block out of the bill’s promise. "Half of my family would be excluded" from the bill’s path to citizenship, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., [said yesterday at a press conference]( with his fellow Gang of Eight members. "This is no easy path. I am glad we are not applying to ourselves." One of the ways that people might be knocked off the path is the cost. Many low-income immigrants are going to have a particularly hard time getting past the fines, fees, exclusions from safety-net programs and income-based requirements. **Fees** First, to make it through the path to citizenship, applicants need to pay $2000 in fines. They’ll pay $500 when applying for the 10-year Registered Provisional Immigrant status and then owe another $500 after six years in this status. Before applying for a green card after ten years, provisional immigrants are required to pay another $1000. A report from the [Migration Policy Institute]( found that as of 2007, $2000 represents about to 6% of average annual household income for undocumented folks. Or, put another way, $2000 "can be nearly two months take-home pay for many undocumented immigrants," says Manuel Pastor, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who’s written about what high fees do to immigrants’ decisions about applying to change their status. "The $500 fee is 2 weeks pay. For many people that’s very hard." On top of the $2000, immigrants will be required to pay hundreds of dollars in additional processing fees when applying for green cards and then citizenship. **Safety-Net and Public Charge** As[ I wrote yesterday,]( newly legalized immigrants are excluded from all federal safety net programs, which means that while paying thousands to gain immigration status, those in provisional status receive none of the help that other tax payers can rely on. For some, the costs of healthcare and of supporting families may become impossible to meet. But when it comes to the safety net, the bill could do more than exclude people from access. It could also cast immigrants out of citizenship eligibility if they are deemed likely to need significant government assistance. Six years after getting on the path to citizenship, most adults with provisional status must prove, before their status is renewed, that they won’t likely become what’s called a "public charge." The standards for being deemed a "public charge" are stringent and apply to people whose sole mode of survival is government cash assistance. Because people on the path to citizenship are excluded from these programs, it’s unlikely they’ll be pegged with the public charge exclusion. However, the public charge provision is left entirely to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security so its impact will depend on implementation. **Back Taxes** Though many undocumented immigrants currently pay payroll taxes through Tax ID numbers, Manuel Pastor says he expects those who have not paid to struggle to come up with the money they need. "I’m very worried about what that will do, especially to those who have been working for years and have not paid all taxes," he says. About 21 percent of undocumented adults in 2007 earned wages that leave them below the poverty line, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center. That’s double the poverty rate for the general population.