President’s Budget Proposes to Engage Private Sector in Citizenship Preparation

On March 4, President Obama released his proposed budget to fund the government for the fiscal year 2015, which begins on October 1, 2014. Included in the budget are two naturalization-related requests, both of which, if approved by Congress, promise to increase the capacity of organizations nationwide to help eligible immigrants become citizens.

The first is a request we’ve seen since early in the Obama Administration: a request for funding for a citizenship and integration grant program. To quote from the budget document:

“The Citizenship and Integration Grant Program is the sole Federal program that supports the civic integration of lawful immigrants through citizenship preparation programs.”

Grants are awarded to immigrant service organizations that provide citizenship preparation classes, assist immigrants with their naturalization applications, or provide training to organizations to increase their capacity to prepare immigrants for citizenship. (You can see a list of the most recent grantees here.)

Since 2009, the Office of Citizenship within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has allocated more than $40 million to the citizenship grants program. Grants have gone to 182 non-profit service providers in 33 states and the District of Columbia. USCIS estimates that thus far more than 72,000 permanent residents have benefited from citizenship preparation services as a result of the grants, and an additional 20,000 are benefiting in the current fiscal year.

While Congress in the early years of the grant program provided more support, in recent years the preponderance of funding for the grant program has come from the Immigration Examination Fees Account—in other words, from the fees paid by applicants for immigration benefits, including citizenship applicants. In the current fiscal year (FY 2014), Congress has allocated only $2.5 million for the grants program, and USCIS is allocating $7.5 million from the fee account.

In the newly released budget, the administration is asking Congress to provide the full $10 million for the program. This makes sense: support for “the civic integration of lawful immigrants through citizenship preparation” is a worthy goal for the nation as a whole, and it is not too much to ask Congress for that small investment.

A Public-Private Experiment

The other request contained in the budget is something entirely new. The administration is asking that $3 million of the amount USCIS collects in premium processing fees be set aside for the creation of a United States Citizenship Foundation. The amount will also support the Foundation’s initial three years of operation. In the budget document, the foundation is described as,

“…a charitable and nonprofit corporation authorized to accept private donations to support the purposes of the Foundation, which include expanding instruction and training on citizenship rights and responsibilities, supporting a multi-sector approach to immigrant civic integration in the United States, and promoting the importance of United States citizenship.”

The creation of such an entity is something that citizenship advocates have requested. (For example, see this letter to President Obama from January 2013, signed by members of the Naturalization Working Group and the National Partnership for New Americans.)

The theory behind the Foundation is that there are potential corporate donors willing to spend money to help immigrants become citizens. These corporations, however, may not be connected to the immigrant service provider community and, rather than researching potential recipients of grants, would rather donate to an entity set up exclusively to support and compliment ongoing citizenship initiatives.

According to the budget document, the Foundation will have a board of directors that will “represent a variety of interests including business and the private sector, educational institutions, service clubs, community and faith-based organizations, and philanthropy.”

The administration anticipates that, by the end of fiscal year 2017, the Foundation will be financially self-sufficient.

Should Congress grant the request—which does not involve appropriated funds from the general treasury, but only a portion of fees collected from individuals paying a premium fee for fast-tracking a decision on their applications—it will be the beginning of a very worthwhile experiment to step up the engagement of the corporate world to help America’s newcomers become new Americans.

This article was written for the National Immigration Forum, and a version was published on the website of the New Americans Campaign.