The city of Seattle has joined in a lawsuit against the Trump administration over new rules related to naturalization application fees, arguing the rules will make it more difficult for low-income applicants to have their fees waived and will likely reduce the number of people who apply to become naturalized United States citizens.
Seattle is a plaintiff and the City Attorney Pete Holmes’ Office has assigned a lawyer to monitor the case. But there are other plaintiffs, and non-Seattle lawyers are taking the lead on the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in San Francisco federal court.
Seattle is participating because Mayor Jenny Durkan and Holmes believe the Trump administration’s new rules will harm Seattle residents and because the city funds programs that help local residents become citizens, Durkan and Holmes say.
“The American promise must be open to all,” the mayor said in a statement. “Wealth is not and should never be a requirement of being an American citizen. Seattle will fight for the promise of America and against a pay-to-play approach to citizenship.”
To naturalize, immigrants typically must have lived in the U.S. as lawful permanent residents. They must also pay $725 in fees but can have those fees waived by U.S. Citizenship and Immigrants Services (USCIS) if they show they can’t afford to pay.
Since 2010, naturalization applicants have been able to qualify automatically to have their fees waived by showing they receive means-tested benefits from another government agency, such as state-administered food stamps or supplemental security income.
About 40% of applicants nationwide now have their fees waived, and more than 500 participants in Seattle’s New Citizen Program had their fees waived last year, according to the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA).
Under the new rules, which are scheduled to take effect on Dec. 2, applicants will no longer be able to qualify that way. They’ll need to submit other supporting documentation, including federal income tax transcripts.
Most applicants don’t have tax transcripts, which can be difficult to obtain, and many aren’t required to file taxes in the first place, said Meghan Kelly-Stallings, OIRA policy specialist.
“This is part of a broader array of actions the Trump administration has undertaken to make things difficult for immigrants, especially low-income immigrants,” said Joaquin Uy, OIRA spokesman.
The Trump administration says means-tested benefits are inappropriate criteria because the income requirements for such benefits vary from state to state.
“USCIS waives hundreds of millions of dollars in fees annually. The revised fee waiver process will improve the integrity of the program and the quality and consistency of fee waiver approvals going forward,” USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement last week announcing the new rules.
Seattle and the other plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit — Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Self-Help for the Elderly, OneAmerica and Central American Resource Center of California — say it makes sense to use different income requirements because living costs vary from state to state.
The lawsuit claims the new rules are arbitrary and capricious, arguing the Trump administration hasn’t proven that the rules will better reflect whether applicants can afford to pay the naturalization fees. The lawsuit also claims the Trump administration has violated procedural regulations that apply to rule changes.
Kelly-Stallings said she worries the new rules will delay naturalization for some Seattle immigrants, make the process more expensive for others and dissuade still others from naturalizing altogether. That will hurt the city because people earn the right to vote and tend to make more money once they become citizens, she said.
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