Interest groups have spoken out against broadscale revisions to the N-400 application for naturalization. This blog will explain why these changes are harmful and unlawful.
What revisions have been made to the N-400 and how are they preventing naturalization?
The N-400 form is the application that must be filled out by green card holders to become US citizens. The N-400 form is meant to ascertain if an applicant has complied with legal requirements for citizenship and is of “good moral character.” A full fledged explanation from Boundless Immigration can be found here.
USCIS has proposed broadscale revisions to the form which include: an expansion of travel history records from the current five year requirement to ten years, additional required documentation including tax returns and children’s birth certificates, and an extension of the questions meant to evaluate “good moral character.” The revisions also aim to remove the section which explains how to apply for accommodations for disabilities.
The CEO of Boundless, in an open letter to the secretary of Homeland Security, has argued the proposed changes “are fundamentally aimed at discouraging legal permanent residents from achieving their dream of becoming US citizens.” Similar sentiments have been shared by other organizations, such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc (CLINIC) in other open letters.
Both CLINIC and Boundless conclude that the new revisions create added ambiguity to the form, dramatically raise burdens on applicants and government agencies alike, and do not improve the quality of the information collected. New moral character questions such as “Have you ever been associated with, worked for, or given any kind of money, help, or assistance to a group or a member of a group that used weapons or engaged in violence?” create legal problems. Would this include hunting or boxing clubs? Does this include unknowing or forced cooperation? A majority of the new seven questions present similar ambiguities and therefore have the potential to deter and confuse applicants.
More problematic is the request for additional information, namely: an extra five years of travel history, three years of tax returns, and all children’s birth certificates. Added travel history has no bearing on the legality of naturalization and adds an incredible burden on the applicant for finding information—not to mention a burden on FOIA requests for individual green card holders’ travel history. Tax returns and birth certificates used to be requirements for specific candidates and are irrelevant for the majority of cases.
These changes go against the goals of the DHS—facilitating naturalization as easily as possible—by making naturalization a more complicated and lengthy process. The USCIS charter also says that its goal is to “make every effort to provide accommodations to customers with disabilities” yet they have removed the exact section which makes this sentiment a reality. Additionally, the costs of these revisions has been woefully underdetermined as shown by the Boundless chart below. The real costs of the form adjustments must be swallowed by taxpayers and immigrants both.
How are these changes unlawful?
Not only are these changes harmful, they are also illegal. The INA gives the DHS the power to collect information for naturalization if the information is limited to physical presence in the country (for five years), good moral character, and other lawful requirements. The unnecessary unilateral documentation requests for tax, travel, and birth certificates are not related to law and therefore unlawful revisions. Moreover, under the DHS’s own definition of good moral character, the seven added questions are erroneous.
CLINIC and Boundless also highlight that the revisions do not comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act. The N-400 meets none of the four allowed reasons for revision. Boundless finds that this information request has no practical utility, is underestimated in terms of burden (and if accurately estimated would need to be reviewed by the OMB), precludes clarity, and maximizes the burden of collecting information. By framing these changes as “revisions,” USCIS circumvented public comment and agency review. Under recognized legal process, the DHS has three options: (1) rescinding the revisions, (2) rescind and then publish new revisions which actually reduce burdens of information collections, or (3) enter a proposed rule change under the ADA which provides a full fledged explanation and is open to public comment.
How does successful naturalization affect Americans and American businesses, or in other words, why do these changes matter?
Besides the historical and ideational importance of allowing immigrants to become citizens of the US, there are many practical reasons for ensuring a functional process of naturalization. Creating opportunities for citizenship is beneficial to the US population, economy, and businesses.
Naturalized citizens earn between 5.6 and 7.2 percent more within just 2 years of becoming citizens. If only half of those eligible to become citizens were able to finish the process, the US economy would benefit between 21 and 45 billion dollars over the next decade. Economic growth benefits those immigrants being naturalized, but also native citizens a great deal. Further, the certainty that comes with citizenship allows businesses to invest in job training and additional education for their employees—which would stimulate growth in important sectors such as STEM fields. A more longform scholarly analysis of the benefits of naturalization can be found here.