Following a 69 percent increase last summer in citizenship fees, about 281,000 immigrants have applied to become U.S. citizens in the first half of 2008 - less than half the number of applicants in the same period last year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The decline follows a rush of applications when immigrants hurried to get their paperwork filed before fees shot up at the end of July 2007. In that month alone, more than 460,000 immigrants applied for citizenship.
They paid $400. The new fee is $675 - a price some people believe is a barrier to citizenship.
Thu Tran, director of a citizenship program at Catholic Charities of Orange County, said she helped more than 100 people a month fill out citizenship papers in the last few years. This year she helps about 50 a month.
"I have people who make appointments and cancel," Tran said. "We follow up and they say they don't have the money to pay for that."
While immigrant advocates blame higher fees and a wobbly economy, a federal official said a variety of reasons could have caused the decline.
"For everyone, it's different," said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The agency has not had so few applicants to open a year since 2003, when nearly 270,000 people applied for U.S. citizenship.
Flavia Jimenez, director of the citizenship program at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said some immigrants in Chicago are taking out loans to pay the fees or designating one family member who gets to apply for citizenship.
Helen Ravasdy, a 30-year-old who immigrated to Southern California from China, said she wished she could have applied when it was cheaper but she hadn't lived in the U.S. long enough. She's now applying because she wants to vote.
"I have to do it now - not later," said Ravasdy, who is taking classes at a community college in Orange to prepare for her citizenship test.
Herminia Kindelan, a program specialist at a citizenship program at Santa Ana College, said she is worried that applications could decline further. She said more immigrants might be discouraged about upcoming revisions to the U.S. civics test, which they must pass before becoming citizens.
The changes, which aim to gauge immigrants' understanding of concepts in U.S. civics and avoid rote memorization, take effect for applications received after Sept. 30.