By Carrie Spitler

The Santa Cruz City Council is set to take a stand for immigrants’ rights in its March 13 meeting. The council is expected to pass a resolution opposing an increase in naturalization fees proposed by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The USCIS wants to raise naturalization fees from $330 to $595, stating that the extra funds would expedite the immigrant approval process.

The Council’s resolution was written in part by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and in part by City Councilmember Tony Madrigal. Madrigal, whose parents emigrated from Mexico to California, believes a fee increase will place too heavy a burden on immigrants struggling to start a new life in a foreign country.

“I’ve already heard from the Latino and Indian immigrant communities and they are expressing concern about the negative impact this will have on them,” Madrigal said.

The Watsonville City Council passed a similar resolution on Feb. 27, and a number of other local organizations have voiced their opposition to the proposed fee hike as well.

Yolanda Goda, executive director of the Familia Center, a Latino family resource agency, feels that the proposed increase is a very discouraging sign for immigrants.

“It sends the message [that] you have all these criteria to pass and now we’re going to make it even harder,” Goda said.

Goda, Madrigal, and others believe that while the lengthy processing time for citizenship applications must be addressed, the federal government needs to find other sources of funding besides immigrants’ pocketbooks.

“There is an 80 percent or more increase which [the USCIS] promises will reduce the processing time by 20 percent,” Madrigal said. “I’m sorry, but if it reduces it from 10 days to eight days, that doesn’t seem like much to me.”

Local immigration attorney Maura Petersen is concerned that immigrants won’t be able to pay the increased fee as well as hire an attorney to help them through the application process. Petersen predicts that many will be forced to turn to “notarios”—cheaper, unlicensed lawyers who offer assistance to immigrants but often take advantage of them.

“Without proper assistance, these eligible applicants may delay their immigration process,” Petersen told City on a Hill Press via e-mail. “Or, in some cases with strict deadlines, they may lose their opportunity to immigrate altogether.”

An alternative to hiring “notarios” is the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project (SCCIP), which provides educational, advocacy, and legal services to immigrants. SCCIP Program Director Doug Keegan is against the USCIS’s proposed fee hike, as he believes it to be an offensive gesture toward prospective immigrants.

“Is [this fee increase] really how we promote citizenship? “ Keegan said. “This is what we’re doing to show them that we want them to participate in our democracy, our country?”

Despite the proposed fee hikes and the numerous hardships they face once inside the United States, Goda believes that immigrants will still try to grab a piece of the American Dream.

“They have nothing to go back to [in Mexico],” Goda said. “I know it’s hard to imagine, but for all the difficulties they have here, where they live in the shadows and get all the unwanted jobs, it’s even harder to live back there.”