Immigration Matters - 2019


Waiting Will Now Have a Cost

By Rishi P. Oza

The Friday before Veterans Day marked an update from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service administration of our nation's immigration laws. Citing rising costs associated with the operation of its functioning, USCIS is proposing raising government filing fees by a whopping 21 percent to help offset rising costs associated with managing the country's immigration laws. These rule changes, published in the Federal Register, mark the second rise in fees in the past two years and reflect a drastic hike in what some critics have already pointed out are steep costs for immigrants already.

USCIS has justified these cost hikes by pointing to the fact that the agency is a fee-driven bureaucracy. Unlike many other federal agencies, USCIS is largely funded by fees submitted with certain applications. These fees range from the modest ($85 for biometrics fees) to sizeable ($3675 for EB-5 investors). In its notice to the public, USCIS has stated that the fees “are necessary to recover the full operating costs associated with administering the nation's immigration benefits system, safeguarding its integrity, and efficiently and fairly adjudicating immigration benefit requests, while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our country's values."

While this may seem like bureaucratic nonsense, the new proposal reinforces the Trump Administration's already-public priorities in trying to mold the Department of Homeland Security. For example, USCIS cites a need to transfer $207.6M in funding to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fund ICE's operations and objectives. USCIS has justified this transfer to ICE as beneficial to USCIS' overall mission of providing secure and fair judgments in adjudication proceedings; moreover, ICE's enforcement of the country's immigration laws helps to reduce fraud and abuse, which ultimately save money for USCIS.

Perhaps most shocking is the proposal to raise the cost of applying for naturalization from the current level of $640 to $1170, an eye-popping 83 percent rise in fees, for what many consider to be the pinnacle and most precious benefit of the immigration system (naturalization also requires an additional $85 biometrics fee to be included with the filing). USCIS has historically trumpeted naturalization to be an immigrant's fullest expression of joining the fabric of America, a step that fee hikes would make remarkably harder.

USCIS justifies this increase as necessary to cover the full cost of naturalization, rationalizing that the current and prior fees have not sufficiently accounted for all of the costs associated with naturalization. According to the Service, some of these costs have been defrayed upon other individuals seeking immigration benefits, but that displacing such costs would not longer be equitable. While such rationale may make sense in the short-term, the long-term impacts of reducing interest and the human investment into the US citizenship is fundamentally harmful to the health of America's democracy. While this isn't necessarily an implication that USCIS is changing fees for anything other than legitimate means, the policy decision to raise naturalization costs so substantially will have a negative impact upon the typical immigrant's basic ability and willingness to seek US citizenship.

While a common mantra since 2016 is that elections have consequences, critics to this new proposed rate schedule argue that one of those consequences should not be to curtail the country's immigrant heritage through fee hikes.

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Rishi P. Oza is Partner at Brown Immigration Law, a firm that focuses solely on immigration law; he practices in Durham. roza@rbrownllc.com