By: Natalia Ricardo*
On Friday, September 24, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its final rule on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) fee schedule, first proposed on June 11, 2010. The rule results in an average 10% increase in fees. Additionally, the rule establishes three new fees associated with the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program, the Civil Surgeon Designation, and processing of Immigrant Visa requests. There is also an adjustment of the Premium Processing service fee. USCIS maintained that the fee increase was a necessary means to recover operating costs. The rule will take effect on November 23, 2010; meaning that all applications or petitions mailed, postmarked, or otherwise filed on or after November 23, 2010 will be subject to the fee increase.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) submitted comments on the proposed rule. CLINIC and USCCB cited the detrimental effect these fee increases will have on low-income immigrants and religious workers. An increase in application fees will discourage low-income immigrants from applying for legal permanent residence and citizenship. It will limit their ability to secure legal representation as money will be spent on fees instead of a lawyer.
Furthermore, CLINIC and USCCB illustrated how a fee increase will go against USCIS’ goals of integration and family unification, and proposed that USCIS seek targeted appropriations to subsidize certain applicants so that immigrants aren’t left paying out of pocket to cover the day-to-day operating costs of a government agency.
CLINIC argued that an increase in fees will lead to less applications was refuted by DHS. DHS indicated that the fee for immigration benefits is only one of many reasons why the number of filers fluctuates. It contended that factors such as the economy, policy debates, legislative actions, and business cycles were among the variables that influence the number of applications, without acknowledging that all of these factors contain an economic underpinning.
While CLINIC took the position that a fee increase will be a barrier to access legal representation, DHS denied that it had any duty to ensure that applicants are able to pay for legal fees. It did not address CLINIC’s argument that applications completed with legal representation are more likely to be correctly filed, thereby fulfilling USCIS’ objective to reduce processing times and provide better customer service.
CLINIC’s assertion that increased fees will be a hindrance to family unification was dismissed by DHS, which contended that USCIS filing fees are only a small portion of the over-all costs associated with immigrating to the United States. DHS further argued that if USCIS did not increase fees, it would not be able to fully recover costs. The agency would then be unable to process applications in a timely manner, resulting in delays that would harm families more than the fee itself. This proposition appears unlikely as burdensome delays already exist in processing these petitions.
In light of the USCIS fee increases, it is now more important than ever to have a fee waiver process that is consistent and fair. Though CLINIC suggested that USCIS offer fee waivers to more applicants, USCIS’ new fee structure does not expand those eligible for fee waivers. Applicants for humanitarian relief may receive a fee waiver based on demonstrated financial need. DHS has taken steps to revise the fee waiver application process by developing a form that will outline the requirements necessary to support a fee waiver so that these may be approved automatically and consistently. The form has yet to be finalized.
For more information and CLINIC’s comments on these developments:
*Natalia works with CLINIC’s Advocacy Section