The online retail giant “Welcome Door” program targets refugees and other humanitarian immigrants such as asylum seekers with support that includes work permit reimbursement. The program also provides legal assistance to lawful permanent residents with their naturalization applications.
Amazon began offering the benefits to U.S. workers in April and will expand them to other countries later this year, spokeswoman Ellie Russell said.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, an organization of farmers and ranchers in the state, announced similar plans late last year.
A significant portion of California’s agricultural workforce includes legal permanent residents. These workers — who tend to be older, more experienced and higher-skilled — are also the types of employees that matter most to farmers and ranchers, said C. Bryan Little, director of labor affairs at the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“A lot of these people hold key positions on these farms,” he said. “We want to give them the opportunity to become an employer of choice in their community.”
Both initiatives demonstrate which premium employers are willing to invest in retaining their immigrant workforce. They are also being introduced as many industries face new hiring battles – a challenge farmers grappled with for years before the current labor shortages.
“It’s all about employee retention,” said David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute. “Employee turnover is a huge cost to employers because it’s not just the lost productivity and time the employee is unavailable. You also have the added expense of finding and training a new replacement.”
Immigrants have been a huge contributor to US labor force growth since 2010, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis found. But the pace of new immigration has slowed over the past two years.
It makes more sense for employers to absorb a few hundred dollars to retain valuable employees who may have a choice of jobs, Bier said.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh recently called on lawmakers to overhaul the US immigration system, saying that simply introducing more temporary visas will not be enough to fill the labor shortage. But even if Congress makes green cards and citizenship more widely available, high fees — and a complicated application process — stand in the way of workers gaining full citizenship.
About 67% of naturalized citizens have borrowed from high-interest sources such as credit cards or payday loans to fund the $725 naturalization fee charged by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services a survey by BlueHub Capital, a nonprofit community finance organization. The survey included more than 1,200 respondents who immigrated or naturalized between 2016 and 2021.
The organization this year launched a platform called One Percent America to offer low-interest loans to help green card holders afford to become citizens.
“We don’t give people the ability to affordably pay these USCIS fees,” said Jaime Escott, vice president of marketing at BlueHub.
Private sector employers pay substantial amounts to sponsor workers for employment-related visas. But because citizenship isn’t required for eligibility to work, “companies typically stop at that point and don’t see a need to cover those costs,” said Helena Coric, senior manager of integration programs at the National Immigration Forum, which partners with Amazon and the California Farm Bureau Federation provide legal services for naturalization.
Completing this process provides immigrants with greater security and the opportunity to reunite with immediate family members more quickly than would be possible with a green card.
“The opportunity to promote that benefit when the employee enrolls is tremendous,” Coric said. “Knowing that an employer will provide this greatly reduced legal assistance can really increase retention, especially if that employer also extends the benefit to an immediate family member.”
USCIS has promoted naturalization opportunities by reaching out to immigrant communities, offering educational tools and conducting a social media campaign to encourage those seeking citizenship, an agency spokesman said.
The agency also has a fee waiver process for certain forms and will propose an adjustment to fees for immigration and naturalization services for the first time since 2016, the spokesman said.
However, pro-immigration advocates point out that fee waivers are only available to the poorest immigrants. Immigrants can be exempt from naturalization fees if their annual income is less than 150% of the federal poverty line — about $20,000.
USCIS Director Ur Jaddou announced an upcoming update to the agency’s fee schedule during an April congressional hearing on the agency’s fiscal year 2023 budget request.
The agency’s recent attempt to update the charges under the Trump administration was blocked by a federal court in a case alleging then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf illegally performed his role. The complaining interest groups also showed that the increased fees would place an unjustified burden on low-income immigrants, the court found.
The Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of USCIS, estimated that there were 9.2 million green card holders in the US who were eligible to become citizens as of January 2021. States like New York and local governments like the City and County of San Francisco and Montgomery County, Md., have started their own citizenship support programs to facilitate application.
The effectiveness of these programs shows that cost is a significant barrier, said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
Other immigration costs
The financial burdens of the immigration system are not limited to naturalization. Applicants to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers protection from deportation and work permits, pay $495 to renew their status.
“That’s quite a chunk of money to give to the government every two years,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, deputy chief of federal attorneys at United We Dream.
While the program’s long-term status remains in question, universities, employers and non-profit organizations have funded all DACA recipients to renew their protections. For those who aren’t employees or students of these institutions, there’s often “just not enough money in the nonprofit world to pay everyone who needs it,” Macedo do Nascimento said.
The reality is that USCIS’s operations depend on raising money from the people it provides services to, Loweree said. In the future, the agency could shift some of those costs to people in categories they can better afford, he said.
“If someone has shown that they really care about this country and want to fully participate in our democracy, we should welcome them to the United States with open arms,” he said.