USCIS Proposes Fee Hikes to Apply for Citizenship, Asylum

When NPR asked acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ken Cuccinelli how the government’s stricter “public charge” standard squared with The Statue of Liberty’s call to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Cuccinelli answered that they lined up just fine and quoted the poem his way: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” He continued in a manner that caused his high school history teacher to cringe as he tried to give his misremembered line some faux legitimacy. 

“That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed—very interesting timing.”

Cuccinelli’s revision was bad history and a bad précis of the administration’s position. A more accurate edit of the Statue of Liberty would be “Give us your inconvenienced, your solvent, your excellent coders yearning to live under a cloud of suspicion.” 

Immigration attorneys know that the public charge requirement dates back to 1882, and the government has long checked to make sure that those applying for status in the United States have a financial support structure in place to prevent them from becoming reliant on the government. The change in August that prompted Cuccinelli to amend Emma Lazarus’ poem redefined “public charge,” so that someone who does not know English could be construed as a public charge. Someone who temporarily uses government assistance could be considered a public charge. Immigration attorneys recognized that the change wasn’t an effort to make sure applicants were financially viable and rightly saw it as part of the current administration’s ongoing attempts to change the nature of immigration in America. 

Last week, the administration took another step down that path when it announced plans to increase fees for immigration-related fees. The fee to apply for citizenship will increase from $640 to $1,170, and the fee for a marriage-based green card will climb from $1,760 to $2,750—10 dollars short of a thousand-dollar increase. The government also wants to remove fee waivers for these programs despite the fact that fee waivers are granted in exceptionally limited circumstances under current rules. Those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will have the cost of renewal of status climb from $495 to $765. The administration also plans to require asylum seekers to pay $50 to apply for asylum, which would make the U.S. one of four countries in the world that charge people to seek asylum. 

In our experience, we’ve seen that these changes are impactful. These increases would cause real hardship for many seeking these status adjustments—not so much that it will discourage applicants, but enough to cause real hardship to people who have bought into the promise and possibility of America. The fee increases for those who wish to apply for citizenship creates a barrier to citizenship and with it, voting. Everything about the administration’s asylum policy is inhumane and seems designed to make sure that those who live in poverty, danger and crime stay there regardless of their personal cost, even though all evidence so far says that desperate people who fear for their lives and those of their loved ones will risk everything to escape. 

Cuccinelli contends that these increases are needed to address an annual $1.3 billion deficit, and that “the revised fee waiver process will improve the integrity of the program and the quality and consistency of fee waiver approvals going forward. Providing clear direction to agency adjudicators for more uniform determinations will help us to uphold our mission of efficiently and fairly adjudicating immigration requests.” Others see the proposed changes as less benign than that. “The only way to understand this is as a part of the administration’s campaign of hostility against the asylum program,” said Barbara Strack, a former chief of the agency’s refugee affairs division under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

“Once again, this administration is attempting to use every tool at its disposal to restrict legal immigration and even U.S. citizenship,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based tech company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship. “It’s an unprecedented weaponization of government fees.”

Those who are concerned about these changes can state their opposition. The proposals were published last Thursday in the Federal Record, and that starts a comment period during which time people can make their opposition known. 

Those who may be affected by these changes should consult with an experienced immigration attorney. They need to know how these changes could impact them, and if anything can be done to avoid or mitigate those fees. The increases might not end up going into effect, but experienced immigration lawyers can help clients understand how and if these changes will affect them, strategize possible alternatives if they exist, and commiserate if that’s all that there is to do. Most importantly, they can make sure that clients move forward in this uncertain immigration climate with as much clarity and real information as possible. That information might not be the news that applicants want to hear, but at least they will be working from the best information available and not rumor, hearsay, and conjecture, which almost always complicate tough situations. 

 

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