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The cost to vote can be thousands of dollars

Marketplace Contributor Aug 2, 2016
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Citizenship candidates take the Oath of Allegiance to the US during a naturalization ceremony on June 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. 
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

You may not think twice about casting your ballot this November. But many non-citizens are racing to get their ability to vote in time. Citizenship applications have increased 11 percent in the 2015 fiscal year alone. And the naturalization process is more than just filling out papers and taking a civics test. It can also mean thousands of dollars.

The least anyone will spend is $680 – the cost of filing the citizenship application and getting a biometrics appointment, where your fingerprints are scanned and photos taken. A few months later, you’re called in for an interview and a civics test — no fee for those. If you pass, congratulations: you become an American.

But that’s if your case is straightforward. If you need an attorney, lawyer fees alone can bring the price up significantly.

“I can say that it will be more than probably $1,000. And then average will be from $1,000 to $5,000,”  immigration attorney Iris Albizu said, who offers a payment plan to help clients.

Most people go to lawyers if they have complicated cases — if they were ever in trouble with the law, for example, or held undocumented status for a time. Everything in your history will come up, even something like getting caught for underage drinking.

“Applying for citizenship seems like a very easy process, but it’s a process that they take it very seriously (sic),” Albizu said. “They review all your moral character, they review all your records, they review how you became a resident in the first place.”

Graduate student May Mzayek is originally from Syria and is now at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Her parents and sister didn’t use a lawyer when they applied last year, but she still had to travel to her resident state of Tennessee for her appointments. Once there, Mzayek did a lot of waiting around.

May Mzayek’s family spent $4,500 to get citizenship. She traveled to Tennessee for all appointments. 

“A lot of people are always just like, citizenship isn’t so hard, you just have to take a little test,” Mzayek said. “So I don’t think that they realize how hard it is, and how time consuming, and how much money you spend on it.”

In all, her family spent $4,500 for four applications, which included her plane tickets and two months rent for her empty house in Texas. But she doesn’t stop there; Mzayek says the cost of citizenship should also take into account the money spent on visas and green cards. For her family, that was more than $30,000. 

“My college fund and my sister’s college fund that my dad had worked on his whole life was just gone to the lawyers so we could stay,” Mzayek said.

For six months, Mzayek obsessively checked her application status online. She worried something would go wrong and delay the process.

“I made sure to ask the woman that was interviewing me, ‘Are you sure I’m going to get within six months?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’” Mzayek said. “Because I really want to vote in the November elections.”

Mzayek got her wish; her citizenship came through in time to vote for the primaries. But others may not be so lucky. Because of the rise in applications, there’s a backlog at the immigration office. So for some, it will be a nail-biting wait to see if they can squeeze in and make it to the polls in time.

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