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Buffalo refugees fear 61% increase in citizenship fees

Nadeen Yousef of Buffalo waited five years for the moment that arrived last week, the moment when she became a U.S. citizen.

She fears other refugees may have to wait a lot longer, now that the Trump administration is proposing increasing the cost of becoming a citizen by 61%, to $1,170.

Becoming a citizen is hard enough, "but if you're doing this, it will be harder," said Yousef, a refugee from Iraq who operates Macrame by Nadeen at the West Side Bazaar.

Her daughter, Omnia Saek, agreed.

"Can you imagine a family of five applying for citizenship at the same time?" said Saek, a freshman at Canisius College who recently applied for citizenship.

The Trump administration said, though, that there's a good reason for increasing the fees that immigrants have to pay to apply for citizenship: The fees should cover the costs of processing the applications.

Processing immigration applications and petitions "requires in-depth screening, incurring costs that must be covered by the agency," said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a statement, "and this proposal accounts for our operational needs and better aligns our fee schedule with the costs of processing each request.”

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The administration's proposal would also end a program that allowed low-income immigrants to apply for a reduction in the current $725 in citizenship application fees and charge those seeking asylum in the U.S. a $50 fee. The changes would take effect sometime after the end of a 30-day public comment period began when the proposal was filed on Thursday.

Advocates of Buffalo's large refugee community decried the administration's proposal.

"You're coming to the United States to build a life for yourself and now there's this additional barrier imposed on you after you've done all the right things and gone through all the right steps," said Lauren Maguire, director of development and communications at the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the city's four refugee resettlement agencies.

The number of newly naturalized American citizens in Buffalo has more than doubled over a decade, from 748 in fiscal 2007 to 1,627 10 years later, federal figures show.

That's not a surprise, given that the city welcomed thousands of refugees and other immigrants in that decade.

But if the cost of becoming a citizen more than doubles, fewer immigrants in Buffalo and elsewhere will become citizens, said Dr. Myron Glick, founder and CEO of Jericho Road Community Health Service in Buffalo.

"This is consistent with this current administration's assault on immigrants and refugees," Glick said of the fee increase. "At every level, they're trying to make it harder for folks to enter this country and to be a part of the normal fabric of our society."

Nadeen Yousef, an immigrant from Iraq who came to Buffalo in 2014, became a U.S. citizen last week. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The Trump administration has cut the number of refugees coming to America from 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration to 18,000 in fiscal 2020. In addition, Trump tried to implement a travel ban on visitors from several Muslim countries and is trying to end an Obama-era program offering some legal protection to young people brought here without proper documentation by their parents.

And in the proposed rule raising the citizenship fees, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made clear that the increases fit into the administration's broader immigration policy.

"Adjustments to the fee schedule are necessary to recover the full operating costs associated with administering the nation's immigration benefits system, safeguarding its integrity, and efficiently and fairly adjudicating immigration benefit requests, while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our country's values," the federal agency said.

Immigrants who do not attain citizenship lose out on many rights, including the right to vote and the right to work for the federal government, the nation's largest employer.

Refugees that come to America under a federal resettlement program can apply for citizenship after five years in the U.S. That's what Nan Dar, a refugee from Burma who now lives in Buffalo, is planning to do in the next month or two.

She's hoping she and her husband can get their applications in before the fees go up.

"It would be hard for and my family," said Dar, who works for Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, which also resettles refugees in the area. "We just bought a house a few months ago so we don't have a lot of savings now. ... If the price really increased, some more of our savings is going to be gone."

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