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January 1998, Volume 5, Number 1

INS: Naturalization, Sponsorship, Welfare

The INS received 1.6 million naturalization applications in fiscal year 1997, which ended September 30, 1997. This was up from 1.3 million in FY96, 1 million in FY95, 500,000 each in FY94 and FY93, 300,000 in FY92, and 200,000 in FY91. The number of naturalization applications is expected to remain in the one to two million range for the next several years.

The 1.8 million foreigners who have filed naturalization applications are now awaiting interviews. The wait between application and naturalization interview in big cities such as Los Angeles is approaching two years.

The INS announced that an outside review of one million naturalizations granted under the Citizenship USA program between August 1995 and September 1996 found 6,000 doubtful naturalizations, including 300 cases in which the naturalized US citizen had a disqualifying US felony conviction and 5,700 cases of potential misrepresentation or other disqualifying conditions. The INS is moving to revoke the citizenship of 1,200 people who were naturalized in 1995-96.

A follow-up audit of the INS naturalization process by KPMG Peat Marwick found that 20 of 24 INS offices are now in compliance with INS naturalization guidelines, up from one in 24 in April 1997.

In 1998, the INS plans to increase more than 20 of the fees it charges for services, from filing naturalization applications (currently $95) to issuing border-crossing cards.

Sponsorship. Beginning December 19, 1997, US residents sponsoring the admission of family members to the US as immigrants must sign binding agreements promising to support them until they have become US citizens or have worked in the US for at least 40 quarters. All family-based immigrants, as well as foreigners entering the US for employment reasons to work in businesses that are five percent or more owned by a relative, must have US sponsors.

Under US immigration law, potential immigrants can be barred as likely to become a public charge unless their US sponsors have signed affidavits of support on their behalf.

US resident sponsors must also prove that they have an annual income of at least 125 percent of the poverty line for the sponsors and immigrants taken together. For example, a couple sponsoring their parents must have an income of at least $20,062 to cover four people in 1997. US sponsors may enlist others to sign the affidavit of support.

Under current law, US citizens can sponsor their spouses, children, parents and adult brothers and sisters, US legal immigrants can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children, and US employers can sponsor needed employees if the Department of Labor agrees that US workers are not available.

Most immigrants who are sponsored for admission are not eligible for federal means-tested welfare programs for their first five years in the US. Federal and state agencies that provide welfare benefits are deciding from which programs immigrants will be barred; so far, immigrants are not eligible for Food Stamps, Medicaid, SSI and TANF. If a legal immigrant applies for benefits under one of these programs after five years in the US, she will be "deemed" to have access to the sponsor's income and assets for the purposes of determining eligibility.

Section 245(i) adjustment of status ends January 14, 1998, meaning that illegal aliens in the US will not be able to adjust their status to immigrant on the basis of US resident-sponsor petitions after that date. However, all petitions filed by family members by January 14, 1998 will be processed, even if, for example, a visa does not become available for a spouse for three or four years. Some immigration lawyers took out ads to urge family members of unauthorized US residents to sponsor them for admission before January 14, 1998.

Welfare Repayment. When the Department of State and INS consider applications for immigrant visas, the law requires them to assess whether the person who wants to immigrate to the US is likely to become a public charge in the US. Past receipt of benefits is regarded as one of several indicators of possible future government dependency. DOS receives information on benefit usage from 12 states.

Some state and local agencies are telling immigrants that they should repay federal welfare benefits to improve their chances of obtaining visas for themselves or relatives. An immigrant returning from Mexico was asked upon re-entry whether she received Medicaid (Medi-Cal). When she replied yes, a Medi-Cal investigator was called, and he advised her to cancel her participation in the program, and try to repay benefits received, on threat of deportation, even though her children, who received the benefits, were born in the US. California recouped more than $1 million in 1996 from such repayments.

A Haitian in Florida who became a US citizen was advised to repay past Medicaid benefits to the state of Florida in order to obtain immigrant visas for the children she had left in Haiti.

An unauthorized Guatemalan woman who had given birth to five children in California, and was married to a naturalized US citizen, returned to Guatemala in December 1996 to obtain an immigrant visa. While there, she was asked to obtain a letter from the state of California saying she did not owe any money "for the birth of her children or for any other help." In June 1997, California sent a letter to her husband saying that Medi-Cal had spent $121,147 on behalf of the family, and that, if he wanted to repay it, he should do so by certified check or money order. Eventually, the woman was issued an immigrant visa without repayment.

In Washington, the INS says that its inspectors should not be telling immigrants to repay welfare benefits, but the INS office in Los Angeles says that: "If they have received benefits, they have to satisfy us that the benefits have been repaid, that they are no longer receiving benefits and that they are not likely to receive those benefits again." The INS works with state investigators to screen incoming foreigners at U.S.-Mexico border crossings in California to check for benefit usage.

Aliassa Rubin and Patrick McDonnell, "Immigrants Hit With Pressure to Repay Benefits," Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1997. Jodi Wilgoren, "Most INS Problems Fixed, New Audit Finds," Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1997.