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Paying too much to be American

MigrationImmigrationNaturalizationElectionsPolitical SystemsUSC

IT COULD GET HARDER to become an American. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has proposed increasing naturalization fees to $675 from $400. Individuals and organizations have until today to comment on the plan, and a final decision is expected in about two months.

Officials justify the increase by citing congressional legislation from the 1980s, which mandated that service agencies within the old Immigration and Naturalization Service be self-funded. Critics of the plan argue that such a large hike will place U.S. citizenship out of reach for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of legal immigrants. Proponents counter that if U.S. citizenship is so important, immigrants should be willing to save and sacrifice to come up with the money.

As this debate plays out, I don't want us to lose our perspective on the value of naturalizing legal immigrants to full citizenship. Granting immigrants full standing in the nation's civic life has been an integral component of American political life since the founding of the nation. Naturalization is one of the few subjects mentioned in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Naturalization and political participation of the foreign-born were topics debated at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in the first session of Congress in 1790.

According to some legal scholars, the United States' liberal naturalization process stands in contrast to the 18th century European notion of legally differentiated social status for the citizenry, as well as the idea that native-born citizens and naturalized citizens possess different sets of rights.

Controversies surrounding naturalization have periodically surfaced for all major immigrant groups throughout this nation's history. They included fears of the "radicalism" associated with European immigrants after the French Revolution; the possible negative effect of Irish Catholic immigrants and their allegiance to "papist" doctrines in the 1840s and 1850s; concern about non-democratic tendencies of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century; and today, questions about the possible dual nationalist loyalties of Latino immigrants.

The importance of integrating immigrants into political life — to the nation and to the immigrants themselves — cannot be underestimated. After all, naturalization confers on the immigrant all the rights of a native-born citizen, except holding the office of president.

While U.S. citizenship provides concrete benefits to the individual, our democratic system also benefits. The foundations of our democratic government rest on citizen participation through the electoral process and the accountability of democratically elected officials to the voters. If large segments of the populace are unable to participate, the ties of accountability are weakened, and even severed, between the populace and its representatives.

In the extreme, some argue that constituencies with large numbers of noncitizens represent "rotten boroughs." In these districts, it is argued, political offices are sinecures for individuals who gain office with few votes and then are not responsive to their overall constituencies.

Does it serve our nation to have naturalization fees increase more than tenfold in the past 20 years? Do we really want to have in the nation's future a class of low-income, foreign-born residents who are excluded and consequently alienated from the political system? Isn't it time to consider that naturalization has an intrinsic value to all of us?

Immigrants who wish to become Americans should not be seen as buyers, to be charged whatever the market will bear. Instead, let us focus on the foresight of the founders of this country who believed in the value of E Pluribus Unum — "Out of many, one." Not just for the rich but for the many.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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