A Poll Tax by Another Name: Considering the Constitutionality of Conditioning Naturalization and the “Right to Have Rights” on an Ability to Pay
Permanent residents must naturalize to enjoy full access to constitutional rights, particularly the right to vote. However, new regulations from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), finalized in early August and originally slated to go into effect one month before the 2020 election, would drastically increase the cost of naturalization, moving it out of reach for many otherwise-qualified permanent residents, while at the same time abolishing any meaningful fee waiver for low-income applicants. In doing so, USCIS has sought to condition naturalization and its attendant rights on an individual’s financial status.
In this Essay, I juxtapose the new fee regulations with a growing caselaw and scholarly literature about financial status, voting, and an individual’s ability to pay. Placed alongside the ability-to-pay caselaw—including Griffin v. Illinois and Bearden v. Georgia and, more recently, the litigation about Florida’s felony disenfranchisement provisions—it is clear that the new fee policies should be seen as due process and equal protection violations and struck down. I conclude by noting possibilities for litigation or legislation that would preserve a meaningful safety valve to allow low-income individuals to realize the full benefits of naturalization and access all the rights that come with it.