Baytown resident Jessica Mejía Ramírez immigrated to the United States in 2012 from Colombia after her 22-year-old brother was murdered in a shooting. Mejia never imagined living in the U.S. since she was happy in her home country, but she and her family felt they were in danger after her brother’s death.
Mejía, 37, established a life here with her husband, a U.S. citizen. The couple have a son, and she hopes she can share the same U.S. citizenship with them after all these years. This country is already hers, she says, since she has lived in America for nearly 11 years.
But the path to citizenship isn’t cheap. Since her husband is a U.S. citizen, Mejía only had to wait three years to begin the naturalization process after becoming a legal resident in 2019, but due to the cost she put it off.
When the Department of Homeland Security proposed an increase in the application fees issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services earlier this year, she decided to begin the process. The proposed changes would increase the application fee by $35 for naturalization to $760, which would include the cost of biometric services, such as fingerprinting and background checks, if approved.
It’s unclear if or when the fees will go into effect.
“One doesn’t know what’s going to happen … if they’re going to raise it, if they’re going to add more questions, if they’re going to make it more difficult,” Mejia said in Spanish, in regards to the naturalization process. “The faster someone can do it, the better.”
The naturalization process can be costly and complicated, and in some cases immigrants may decide to hire attorneys, which is an added cost. Here are resources available for those wanting to start the naturalization process and become a U.S. citizen.
Determining if you are eligible for naturalization
To begin the process, individuals should first determine if they are eligible to apply for naturalization.
Eligibility includes being over 18 years of age, being a lawful legal permanent resident for at least five years unless an individual is married to a U.S. citizen, which requires only three years.
Individuals must also showcase good moral character, meaning they do not have a criminal history, owe taxes or are behind on alimony or child support.
Where to get help to apply for U.S. citizenship
There are various organizations in Houston that can help individuals navigate the naturalization process for a low-cost or sometimes for free.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund has a legal hotline at 888-839-8682 where people can call to learn how to begin the naturalization process.
NALEO Educational Fund’s Houston office partners with organizations, including the city of Houston’s Office of New Americans and Immigration Communities, to support immigrants at the local level. The hotline is available in English and Spanish.
Additionally, the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative has an Immigrant Resource Hotline where individuals can receive updates on immigration policies or receive referrals to resources in the area. Call 1-833-468-4664 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (except for holidays) to receive assistance.
The Chinese Community Center also helps individuals wanting to start the naturalization process. Submit a client form here.
Where to attend forums and information sessions
NALEO Educational Fund, Office of New Americans and Immigrant Communities, BakerRipley and additional partners host monthly information sessions and citizenship forums.
“We do our best to go out into the community, and try to inform them on how they can best prepare to go through this process,” said Adrian Izaguirre, interim Texas director of civic engagement for NALEO Educational Fund.
The organizations will host two more walk-in citizenship forums this year with registration for the events running from 8-9 a.m. each morning.
Individuals must be lawful permanent residents and bring their permanent resident card, ID and social security card.
During the citizenship forums, the organizations have volunteers help participants fill out the N-400 naturalization application form, Izaguirre said. Volunteer attorneys help with the screening process and legal review after the application is completed.
Additionally, Bonding Against Adversity, a nonprofit supporting Latino communities in Houston, also hosts citizenship workshops. Bonding Against Adversity also helps people prepare for their citizenship interviews with free classes. People must register beforehand. For a full list, click here.
The Chinese Community Center also hosts citizenship information sessions from 10-11 a.m. every second Friday of the month online. The next workshop will be Aug. 11.
Depending on the immigration case, individuals might need an attorney. In many Latin American countries, attorneys are referred to as notarios and can practice law, but in the U.S. a “notary public” is not an attorney but an individual authorized to verify people’s identity on documents, according to the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. The organization has many online resources on warning signs to determine if an individual is working with an unlicensed attorney or fraudulent notary.
Department of Homeland Security’s fee proposal increase
According to the USCIS website, the proposed changes are due to needing more funds to cover operational costs and to avoid backlogs.
USCIS receives about 96 percent of its funding through application and petition fees. For a list of all current fees compared to the proposed fees, go to the proposed rule document here.
“Congress did provide much-needed support in fiscal year 2022, appropriating $275 million specifically to reduce current backlogs and advance our humanitarian mission,” according to the USCIS website. “Going forward, we will require continued congressional support to eliminate our current backlogs, and our intention is that the new fee rule will allow us to keep pace with incoming inventories and avoid future backlogs.”
Backlogs occurred due to the pandemic, which caused revenue to decrease by 40 percent.
Eligibility for fee waivers
USCIS recognizes that not every individual can afford the fees and therefore provides fee waivers for those who might need assistance.
Individuals can check if their filing form is eligible for a fee waiver by going to the Request for Fee Waiver page. Over 20 forms are eligible for a fee waiver, including N-400, the naturalization form.
Eligibility for a fee waiver includes being able to show documentation of income and current financial hardships such as unexpected medical bills or emergencies that prevents an individual from paying the filing fee.
Individuals can also request the form to be mailed by calling 1-800-375-5283.
Nonprofit organizations providing loans
One Percent for America and Mission Asset Fund are two nonprofit organizations that provide loans for the naturalization application fees.
For Mejía, the application fee was $725 – something she could not pay all at once so she didn’t start the process until this year. Mejía’s sister discovered an organization called One Percent for America, a nonprofit that provides loans with 1 percent interest to legal residents wanting to start the naturalization process.
Mejía immediately applied and got approved for a loan. She submitted her application and is now waiting for the date for her naturalization interview. Her biggest worry was that they would run her credit score. Her mother also utilized the organization’s services.
Brenda Loya is chief operating officer of BlueHub Capital, a nonprofit community development financing organization which sponsors One Percent for America. Loya said the group wanted an accessible, easy-to-use product at low cost for people. The organization has been active since about the end of 2021.
The loan operates through a 12-month payment plan. Individuals eligible include those who can provide proof of identity, address, social security number or an individual taxpayer identification number and a bank account number.
A bank account number is needed to withdraw funds from for repaying the loan back in smaller amounts. The organization does not check an individual’s credit score or income, Loya said. Mission Asset Fund also requires a bank account number, and it can help individuals set one up if needed.
One Percent for America has provided 24 loans to borrowers in the Greater Houston region and about 600 nationwide since the organization started. The application can be found online, and can be completed in about 10 minutes, Loya said.
Mission Asset Fund provides zero-interest loans for different immigration fees, including the N-400 application form. Kara Holzer, marketing and communications director for the organization, said they have provided 350 immigration loans in Texas and two specifically for the naturalization application fee.
Their loan operates through a 10-month payment plan, she said. Individuals can apply online..
Mejía said she is forever grateful for One Percent for America. She can’t wait until she becomes a citizen after being here for nearly 11 years.
“In this country, when you want something, just go for it and do it,” Mejía said in Spanish.