The High Cost of Citizenship

BY MOLLY THOMAS-JENSEN

Earlier this year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it intends to raise fees for the processing of many immigration applications and petitions. Among other changes, the agency proposed an increase of 80% for naturalization fees, from $330 to $595, and of 178% for adjustment to permanent residence, from $325 to $905. These fees are on top of a fingerprinting fee that will rise to $80.

As a fee-based agency, USCIS insists that these increases are necessary to improve service, modernize processes, and reduce wait times. Since 1998, the agency has had to pay for almost all of its operations through revenue from processing fees. Congress provides only limited appropriations to cover overhead costs and miscellaneous expenses.

The rising cost of adjustment to permanent residence and of naturalization will undoubtedly discourage many low-income immigrants from applying for these immigration benefits. There is a fee waiver process for indigent applicants, but not everyone qualifies. A working-class husband and wife will pay over $1,300 to become citizens, not counting costs for English and citizenship test classes and help with the lengthy legal forms.

Also troubling is the treatment of asylum seekers. Those who were designated refugees overseas don’t have to pay the full application fee when they become eligible for permanent residence, but those who fled persecution and were granted political asylum once inside the United States get no such exemption. A family of four asylees, even including older children, can easily owe the government almost $4,000 to become permanent residents. These are not the people to whom the government should be sending the bill for USCIS’s operating budget.

In a heated debate over what sort of immigration policy makes sense for our country, those who are present in the United States without proper documentation are often demonized and portrayed as lawless criminals. When the government increases the fees for the most foundational applications – to adjust one’s status to permanent residency and to become a citizen – more and more immigrants will be forced to wait in legal limbo, unable to achieve their dreams of U.S. citizenship.

They are already waiting. Backlogs for the agency to grant permanent residence and citizenship have improved recently, but can still take years for certain classes of immigrants. The New York Times reported this week that free English classes all over the country are full to bursting and have lengthy waiting lists, undermining the idea many anti-immigration advocates hold that immigrants do not want to learn English or to acculturate. Even the immigration courts and the appeals system, where immigrants only have a right to counsel if they pay for it themselves or are lucky enough to get a legal services lawyer, are badly overburdened. The entire immigration system seems to assume that shifting the burdens of time and money to immigrants seeking legal status has little or no downside.

If the United States government wants to make legal status a viable option for the many immigrants who are a part of our national community, it can and must do better than to approve such a drastic increase in processing fees. Citizenship and legal status need not be and should not be a prize only available to the wealthy and privileged.

The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank devoted to the study of movements of people, has suggested that the structure for funding USCIS needs to be changed – by providing that fees pay only for the processing of applications, while Congressional appropriations will cover administrative and overhead costs or the expenses associated with new technology and structural improvement; or by subsidizing naturalization and other applications that show a deep commitment to becoming a productive member of U.S. society and that closely align with our national policy on immigration.

Senator Kennedy and other incoming leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees and Immigration Subcommittees sent a letter to the director of USCIS, Dr. Emilio Gonzalez, calling for hearings on the proposed fee increases in an attempt to “better understand the extraordinary circumstances that could justify such a massive increase.” The letter noted that the committee leaders felt it important that USCIS had sufficient resources but questioned the need for such dramatic increase in the costs of filing immigration papers.

To encourage the Senate and House to take action and to come up with a lasting and workable solution for funding USCIS, you can write to Congressional leaders on the Judiciary Committee – for a listing, see http://judiciary.senate.gov/members.cfm and http://judiciary.house.gov/CommitteeMembership.aspx.

Molly Thomas-Jensen, 2L, is the co-president of the Harvard Immigration Project.

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