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Immigrant Rights Groups Encounter Changes, Issues with Longer N-400 Form

Starting May 5, the USCIS began honoring the current edition of the revised Application for Naturalization form.
Starting May 5, the USCIS began honoring the current edition of the revised Application for Naturalization form.  | Photo: Monica Luhar

A newly revised naturalization form released earlier this month is receiving mixed reviews from various advocacy groups and immigration experts. Some say the form from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has more than doubled in length and has made it more difficult for immigrants from low-income families who are not English proficient to pass the exam. But others believe that the form is much more streamlined and user-friendly.

The N-400 is the application for U.S. citizenship. To note a few basic changes, the new version, which went into effect May 5, is longer, includes a special barcode, and is, what some believe, much more complex.

"There are approximately 40 additional questions that attest to someone's eligibility for naturalization that can be confusing and convoluted for someone who does not have a legal background," according to Nasim Khansari, citizenship network manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA.

USCIS added the new barcode feature for accuracy and data purposes, but Khansari says the feature presents a burden to nonprofit legal service providers who often offer group processing workshops aimed at assisting immigrants with forms that are typically done using paper applications.

There have been no changes to the application's filing fee or naturalization eligibility requirements, according to Sharon Rummery, a spokesperson from the USCIS. The filing fee for naturalization remains the same at $595, in addition to an $85 charge for biometrics for those under the age of 75.

Rummery says it's one of the agency's highest volume forms, and more than 900,000 were received during the fiscal year of 2012.

But there are still issues that remain in terms of encouraging lawful permanent residents to apply for naturalization.

Jenny Seon, immigrant rights project director at the Korean Resource Center, says although the questions on the new form do not differ as much from the old one, the time it takes to fill out the form has greatly increased. Organizations like the Korean Resource Center often resort to filling out non-electronic forms.

"The length is very long. It went from 10 to 21 pages. For our organization, we write it out by hand. It's a challenge. We have an hour...now we have to increase the time to 90 minutes," says Seon.

The South Asian community has also encountered several challenges. Almas Haider is a civil rights advocate at the South Asian Network, an organization that provides resources, engagement, and advocacy within the community and beyond. She says the process will be a little bit more streamlined since applicants have the option of filling out the form on paper or electronically, which is a new feature.

But Haider says that, in general, nearly 40 percent of the Asian Pacific Islander community have been long-term green card holders, but have not applied for naturalization.

45 percent of South Asians have held a green card for nearly 5 years but have not applied for naturalization due to language and economic barriers, she notes.

"When it comes to the South Asian community, there's extreme language and economic barriers...When it comes to applying to citizenship, 1 out of 4 South Asians are limited English proficient -- they won't be able to pass the English civics exam," says Haider.

In some cases, Haider says that there are dozens of older folks who have decided not to apply for naturalization, many of whom do not speak English. There are a handful of other people who are waiting on different waivers, or don't have the resources to apply.

Manjusha P. Kulkarni, executive director of the South Asian Network, says many people who turn to the organization are already weary of the process because of the longevity of the application, and the lack of knowing whether they'll pass the exam because of their English proficiency levels.

"Unfortunately, for a number of our folks, they do decide to stay legal permanent residents because the risks and the cost of it, and also because they don't see the benefits," says Kulkarni.

To address this issue, SAN has attended various local religious centers to recruit and host community citizenship clinics. Part of the initiative is to also partner with libraries to get the word out and encourage people to apply, although not everyone wants to.

"Our experience has been that there are a number of reasons why they don't choose to become U.S. citizens. One is that they don't see a clear economic benefit to it; that nothing will necessarily change for their jobs; and also for sentimental reasons, people might think they are betraying their homeland if they were to become citizens," says Kulkarni.

In 2013, SAN helped complete 137 naturalization applications, and 41 applicants qualified for a fee-waiver. SAN was able to save a total of $27,880 for clients applying with fee-waivers, explained Haider.

New changes to the form include improved formatting, additional highlighted sections and new form barcode technology that will help capture data and reduce error, according to USCIS.

"The revised N-400 has clearer instructions and an easy-to-read single column format. The instructions now highlight the general eligibility requirements," says USCIS.

But in addition to the revisions, USCIS has also requested for additional information relating to national security and good moral character. The form also includes an expanded section for interpreters and those preparing the form for a prospective applicant.

The new form requires an applicant to be at least 18 years of age; a permanent resident of the U.S. for a specified period of time; have demonstrated good moral character, among various other requirements.

A good takeaway from the new form is that it only requires you to describe and list international travel from the last five years, says Kulkarni. The old application previously asked the applicant to list all dates of international travel since being in the United States.

"Our folks -- when they do have enough money -- they tend to go to the homeland a lot more for travel; that's why this change is positive, because you are only asked to look back 5 years," says Kulkarni.

On May 31, the South Asian Network, along with several other organizations like the Filipino American Service Group and the Korean Resource Center, will offer the public a free citizenship workshop at the L.A. Central Library in collaboration with Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice--LA.

According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA, the event will provide language assistance in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

Melissa Potter, director of adult Services at the Los Angeles Public Library, says the library has been hosting citizenship programs and workshops since September 2012. Saturday's event will allow legal permanent residents the opportunity to get free help filling out the new N-400 form with assistance from trained volunteers and attorneys who can help translate in their native languages. Nasim Khansari from Asian Americans Advancing Justice--LA says they are expecting to provide up to 200 legal permanent residents with free citizenship assistance in over 10 different languages.

"We are happy to see that the mayor has created an Office of Immigrant Affairs and they have prioritized naturalization as a key component of their advocacy," says Khansari.

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