Re-inventing immigration and citizenship

Our federal government is responsible for immigration and citizenship. We would all benefit from a system that worked well.

It doesn’t help that only a small fraction of government funding pays for citizenship training and outreach with uncertain effectiveness. When applicants wait a very long time to process their applications (not knowing why) this doesn’t encourage new people to stand in line and work within our system. We could use a measurable and effective strategy to educate and integrate people to live in our country.

It is harder than ever to become an American citizen. The forms are long and complicated. Fees have gone up. There is a new, more difficult, citizenship exam. The government has posted a lot of new material in English on its website to try and help.

In 2007 the federal government received over 1,000,000 citizenship applications representing more than one-half of a billion dollars in fees. In 2008, applications abruptly dropped 50% from over one million to 525,786. Some believe the increased fee and complexity of the new exam are the cause.

This year a $1.2 million government grant was distributed to thirteen groups, in eleven states. The money is for citizenship training. No group receiving funds was required to specialize in teaching ESL or exam preparation. The government set no pass rate targets. There is no place where exam pass rates are reported. No data are available on outcomes achieved in these federally-funded or non-federally funded programs.

If fees increase, it’s harder to pass the exam and there is no measure of success in training, the system needs to be evaluated and changed if the result is preventing people from integrating.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Begin measurable, effective citizenship training. For example, require agencies receiving grants to report back on their effectiveness with the number of people in their program who have enrolled and passed the new exam. While funded groups may be worthy of support, are they best qualified to teach citizenship and English?

2. Post pass rates for the new citizenship exam on the USCIS website and include statistics on the percent who are eligible (five years as lawful permanent residents) but do not take the exam. Many people are afraid to spend money on an uncertain outcome.

3. Coordinate better service with other agencies in the federal government. When an applicant pays their application fee, takes and passes the exam it may take from 8 months to several years to naturalize. This is usually because of FBI “name check” delays. In some cases, applicants have to pay extra money to hire a private attorney to sue the government to force them to process their application because of delays in deciding whether to approve it or not.

If we held our federal government accountable, we could observe how effective our integration efforts really are and perhaps benefit from the change.

About Dena Wurman

Dena Wurman has a Masters Degree in Public Administration, a Juris Doctorate and worked as a business and financial administrator in the public sector before starting a law practice. She is a member of the American Bar Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. For a free consultation visit, e-mail or follow me on Twitter @denawurman.


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