How Much Is Too Much?

USCIS’s Proposed Fee Increases

and Their Effect on the Immigrant Community

 

On November 8, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the possibility of increasing its fees for immigration applications by a weighted average increase of 21%.  On of the most significant increases is for naturalization applications, which will increase by 80%, bringing the costs up from $640 to $1,170. Relatedly, the charge for a full lawful permanent residency package, which relates to the filing of family-based green cards, would increase by 56%, going from $1,760 to $2,750. Obviously, this has been met with some controversy.

USCIS is unique among government entities in that it is funded almost entirely by the fees it collects. According to reports, payments deposited directly into the Immigration Examination Fees Account make up about 96% of the USCIS budget. Should the USCIS continue to operate at its current fee rate, it is estimated that it will be underfunded by about $1.3 billion per year.

Acting director of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli stated in a press release that “USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis. Such a proposed adjustment in fees would ensure more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimize subsidies from an already over-extended system. Furthermore, the adjudication of immigration applications and petitions requires in-depth screening, incurring costs that must be covered by the agency, and this proposal accounts for our operational needs and better aligns our fee schedule with the costs of processing each request.”

Needless to say, this announcement has been met with some controversy. While some assert that it is a necessity if the USCIS is to continue to process immigration applications in a manner that is efficient, secure, and thorough, others have asserted that it is an attempt to exploit vulnerable individuals in desperate situations, railroad individuals into paying high governmental fees, or a move by the Trump administration to discourage further immigration applications. Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, described the potential increase as “a targeted and brazen attack especially on those who are poor and vulnerable,” and an attempt to price immigrants out “of their rightful place in our communities and America.”

Either way, it is crucial to consider just what sort of impact this new policy may have upon the process of immigration application. One of the most important uses is the fee to apply for full citizenship (that is to say, naturalization), which will increase by 80%, bringing the costs up from $640 to $1,170.

“In crafting prior fee rules, DHS reasoned that setting the Form N-400 fee at an amount less than its estimated costs and shifting those costs to other fee payers was appropriate payments promote naturalization and immigrant integration,” the new rule reads.

As many who have researched the possibility of US citizenship will likely know, this particular application, generally speaking, is open only to those who already hold permanent residence in the country, or who meet individual military specifications. Nonetheless, calls have already begun for anyone eligible for such applications to start putting them through as soon as possible, to avoid unnecessary extra fees.

Yet another notable application that is affected is the renewal application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which would increase from $495 to $765. In brief, through this application, illegal residents in the US who were brought into the country as children have their deportation from the country deferred and are made eligible for a work permit. Introduced by President Obama in 2012, the policy serves as a means by which technically illegal individuals can avoid being deported to countries with cultures, languages and practices that they are not familiar with, and instead establish themselves as citizens in the United States, an environment which they are, generally speaking, much more familiar with.

It should be noted that part of the proposal does involve removing fees that currently constitute part of the application process, such as fees for biometrics, but would also add charges to forms that are now free. For instance, Form I-131, via which foreigners living in the US can apply for the right to travel abroad while awaiting their green card, would cost $585 under the new policy—despite being currently available for free.

Most notable, however, is the fact that, under this new policy, USCIS would also charge a $50 fee to those applying for asylum in the country, an application that previously cost nothing. This application fee has become one of the most controversial aspects of the new policy.  Should the $50 price go through, it would make the United States one of only four countries—the others being Iran, Fiji, and Australia—to charge money for asylum applications. Some argue that the influx of asylum immigrants into the country has necessitated the new fee to offset the costs incurred to the country, while others say that, given that many asylum-seekers tend to be fleeing from extremely unstable or impoverished environments, charging them money constitutes exploitation.

In brief, it is quite clear that should this particular new policy be successfully implemented, not only will the political debate around the matter of immigration in the United States become tenser, but immigration will also become far more costly for those looking to enter into the country. This increased expense is something of which anyone with interest in making any form of application at the USCIS ought to be tremendously mindful. If it is possible to make these implications immediately, they ought to do so; and if it is not, they ought to be sure that they take the potential fee increases for what they are interested in into account and budget for them efficiently.