In November, we reported that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had proposed raising fees to apply for citizenship and asylum. It proposed raising the cost of applying for a marriage-based green card by almost $1000. On Monday, December 9, Judge Maxine Chesney in the Northern District of California issued a nationwide injunction against those fees going into effect. She contended that USCIS failed to follow the proper notice and comment procedures.
At the time, acting director of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli said that the increases were necessary to address the agency’s $1.3 billion deficit, but immigration lawyers who deal daily with the people who would be affected by the change saw it as consistent with the current administration’s efforts to use rules and regulations to change the nature of legal immigration in America. The increases would make it harder for some to apply for status changes.
Chesney was aware of the government’s concerns about a judge in one state making a ruling that affects the others and said, “I’d be happy to limit it if I could. I understand the concern about one judge telling the whole country what they can do.” Still, attorney Niketa Patel argued on behalf the plaintiffs, saying, “When the harm is nationwide, the relief should be nationwide.” Chesney found that argument persuasive.
As a part of the schedule of fee increases, USCIS also planned to remove fee waivers in many of these situations, even though they are currently rare and only granted in specific circumstances. Applicants that once would have been eligible for waivers are now eligible again.
Whether the budget shortfall motivated USCIS’ decision to raise fees is debatable; the budget deficit isn’t. President Donald Trump has expanded the agency’s activities including detentions beyond what its budget can absorb. USCIS now wants to address the shortfall by increasing the fees to get access to genealogy records. Currently, it costs $65 to locate a record and $65 to obtain it for a total of $130. That’s up from the $40 it cost little more than a decade ago, and USCIS now wants to raise the current fee by 380 percent to $625.
Genealogy hobbyists are understandably upset by this proposed change. It would make it the cost of research prohibitive, but Baltimore-based journalist and genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn sees a bigger issue. “I don't believe that historical records should be a revenue stream,” she said. “We understand there may be processing costs associated with retrieving them, but this is highway robbery.”
Mendelsohn is acutely aware of the danger of putting historical information behind a paywall. That change affects who can afford access to that information in a time when identities and their roots have become politicized. Mendelsohn founded the Resistance Genealogy project, which looks into the historical backgrounds of politicians that work to limit immigration and the place of immigrants in America.
In an email to CBS MoneyWatch, a spokesperson wrote:
USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis. This proposed adjustment in fees ensures more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimizes subsidies from an already over-extended system. Furthermore, the adjudication of immigration applications and petitions requires in-depth screening, incurring costs that must be recovered by the agency, and this proposal accounts for our operational needs and better aligns our fee schedule with the costs of processing each request.
These developments highlight the importance of working with an experienced immigration attorney. Fees are proposed and treated as inevitable by the administration, then halted by injunctions and only reported in the back pages of the news. Those who desire a status change need the services of someone who keeps track of these changes for a living.