A new multi-million dollar initiative aims to help more than 300,000 Houston-area immigrants gain citizenship

The price of a citizenship application, once $40, has now skyrocketed to $725.


Joe Brueggeman/Houston Public Media

A new citywide effort by Houston-area organizations is aiming to help more than 300,000 Houston-area immigrants overcome financial and language barriers associated with gaining citizenship.

City leaders and members of Houston naturalization organizations gathered ahead of a Tuesday evening council meeting to introduce the project that will provide resources for thousands of Houston residents looking to gain U.S. citizenship, which some said is becoming increasingly difficult.

“There are 312,000 people in greater Houston who are eligible to become a citizen but haven’t taken the steps,” Zenobia Lai, executive director of the Houston Immigrant Legal Services Collaborative said.

That’s because there are barriers to applying for citizenship, she said.

“One is the financial barriers,” Lai said. “The second one is language barriers. They are afraid that their English is not good enough to pass a citizenship test.

The “Naturize Now, Houston!” initiative will develop a program increasing outreach to the community, connect immigrants with service providers and increase education efforts to aid them in naturalization tests.

“Naturalization is really about belonging,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership of New Americans. “When we think of ways to eliminate barriers, I can not think of a more incredibly city-wide, county-wide initiative leading the way to really promote access to services, to eliminate barriers to naturalization by fee assistance and outreach strategies and communication strategies to be able to reach all eligible populations.”

The new efforts, led by the City of Houston, National Partnership for New Americans, Mi Familia Vota and Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, aim to turn Houston into the citizenship capital of the country. It is funded by a multi-million investment from Houston Endowment.

“Thirty years ago I applied for citizenship myself,” Lai said. “The cost of an application was $40, it was still some money, but right now application fees are $725.”

“It is 100 times our minimum wage,” she said.

The proclamation of Citizenship Day and introduction of new citizenship efforts comes just days after a federal judge in Houston struck down a revised version of the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Judge Andrew Hanen deemed the program unlawful last year and DACA applications were temporarily halted. Late Wednesday last week, Hanen again ruled that recent updates to the program by the Biden administration were also illegal.

There are about 50,000 DACA recipients in the Houston area left in legal limbo from the latest ruling, said Cesar Espinoza, executive director of For Families and Their Education, an immigrant-led civil rights organization.

“We’ve got to do better than what we’ve done,” Councilmember Michael Kubosh said Tuesday. “I believe the country has got to wake up. It is one of the national tragedies that we have this situation occurring here.”