US citizenship, legal residency may be out of reach for many in 2020, advocates say

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Steep hikes in immigration benefits filing fees looming after public comment period ends

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — With a substantial increase in filing fees for immigration benefits looming, advocates are urging migrants to get their applications in as soon as possible.

Once the fees go up, attorneys and nonprofits who assist migrants fear the benefits of U.S. citizenship, legal residency for relatives, work permit renewals and a host of other services will be out of reach for many of their clients.

“The cost is already substantial for these applications. A lot of people who are eligible hesitate to file or take a long time (to do so) simply because they have to come up with so much money,” said El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin. “With the fees going up, it’s going to become even harder for people to pay.”

Some of the changes include:

  • Citizenship applications going up from $640 to $1,170, an 83% increase.
  • Legal permanent residence status adjustment up from $1,225 to $2,195, a 79% hike.
  • Deferred Adjudication for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal up from $495 to $765, a 55% increase.
  • Establishment of a new $50 asylum petition fee.
  • Strict limits on fee waivers for citizenship applicants, renewal or replacement of legal permanent resident cards and other benefits.

The Department of Homeland Security proposed the hikes in November due to a projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall for Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that administers immigration benefits. The public comment period expired on Dec. 30, and advocates expect the increases to go into effect at the end of March or sooner.

Proposed fee increases would make it harder for legal immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, advocates say. (AP photo)

A spokesperson for USCIS told Border Report that the agency spends a lot of resources in processing the applications and screening the candidates.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business. This proposed adjustment in fees esnrues more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimize subsidies from an already overextended system,” the spokesperson said.

Also, the agency estimates that if left unchanged, the fee waivers would bleed the agency out of almost $1.5 billion. The proposed changes cap the foregone revenue to an estimated $962 million, a difference of $532 million. “Without the changes to fee waiver policy, fees would increase by a weighted average of 31 percent, which is 10 percent more than in the proposed fee schedule,” according to the notice filed by DHS in the Federal Register.

But advocates note that money from the immigration-benefits agency has been diverted to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the branch of DHS that removes people from the country.

“USCIS has increased fees before, but never so much as now. The question is, if they have a shortfall, why are they transfering funds to ICE? Why use money meant for services for immigrants to fund the deportation of immigrants?” said Douglas Interiano, executive director of Proyecto Inmigrante, an Irving, Texas-based nonprofit.

Interiano, whose agency assists more than 7,000 migrants a year, said the higher fees will not only impact low-income migrants, but also U.S. citizens trying to obtain legal residence for foreign-born family members or spouse and also businesses. The L1 and H1B skilled worker visas would be going up from $460 to $815 and $560, respectively.

“That is a lot of money for bringing in your husband or wife plus the children. Only people with a lot of money or good jobs will pay. Many people are going to miss out on immigration benefits not because they’re not eligible, but because now they’re too expensive,” he said.

Holguin, who is also chairwoman for the El Paso County Democratic Party, said the fee hikes will be an obstacle particularly for legal residents who want to fully integrate into civic life by becoming U.S. citizens.

“We see a lot of people who want to become citizens for whom it’s already hard to come up with the $725, especially older, lawful permanent residents. It’s now going to be much harder for them,” she said.

Interiano and Holguin urged migrants to apply for the benefits before the fees go up. Interiano also cautioned against immigration fraud, for every time the federal government proposes or implements a rule change, some people try to take advantage of frightened or confused migrants.

For a complete schedule of the proposed new fees, click here.

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