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New Canadians take the Oath of Citizenship on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government has committed to waiving citizenship application fees that immigration advocates say are a major barrier that stops newcomers from becoming Canadian citizens.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in his mandate letter to bring forward a plan to eliminate the fees.

Adult applicants currently pay a $530 for processing, and a $100 right-of-citizenship fee. Families have to pay an extra $100 for every applicant under the age of 18. A citizenship application for a family of four would cost $1,460.

The cost is unaffordable for low-income families, said Amy Casipullai, a senior co-ordinator with the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, which advocates for immigrants and refugees. She added that becoming citizens helps immigrants settle down and feel more connected with Canada.

“The rate of citizenship acquisition has been dropping and that’s a concern,” Ms. Casipullai said.

According to Statistics Canada data, the rate of immigrants who became citizens after living for six years in Canada dropped to 55.4 per cent in 2016 from 70.2 per cent in 2006.

Ayham Alkhattab, 35, came to Canada from Syria via Turkey in 2016, and has been eligible to apply for citizenship since October, but has not done so yet because he is awaiting the removal of the fee.

He lives in Montreal and works 40 to 65 hours a week in minimum-wage jobs making $12.5 per hour. His low income and the increasing cost of living in the city have kept him struggling.

“I have to apply for citizenship ... but I will wait a bit,” he said, adding that the government should take into account the fact that some prospective citizens have very low incomes.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is looking into a timeline for eliminating the application fees, and how to cover the cost, said Mathieu Genest, the press secretary for the minister.

“The department is going to do the homework and find out all the details ... and then we will move forward,” Mr. Genest said.

To apply for citizenship, newcomers must prove they have lived in Canada as permanent residents for at least three of the previous five years, have filed income taxes and have adequate knowledge of English or French. They also have to pass the citizenship exam, which includes questions about the rights and responsibilities of Canadians and Canada’s history, government and laws.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper raised the processing fee from $100 to $300 in February, 2014, and to $530 in January, 2015.

It also amended the Citizenship Act in 2014 to increase the residency requirements from three of the four previous years to four of six, and made language and citizenship exams tougher. In 2017, the Liberals reversed most of those changes.

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