More brilliance from the Bush monarchy

Immigration officials propose sharp increases in some fees

A Bush administration proposal to nearly double the cost to become a U.S. citizen was met Wednesday by an outcry from immigrant and minority rights groups who say the increased costs hamper legalization efforts. The proposed hike in application fees by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was called justified by federal officials who said increased revenue would recoup the cost of doing business and provide more personnel to improve services.

Emilio Gonzalez, the USCIS director, said he looks at the fee increases through the eyes of an immigrant, “because I am one.”

But Gonzalez said his agency is the first contact immigrants have with the U.S. government, and they “don’t want long waits, they don’t want to go into dingy buildings, they don’t want to meet with rude employees.”

Gonzalez said the fee increases would provide facilities, people and services to better serve the immigrant community.

Hispanic and immigrant rights groups, however, said the higher cost could make citizenship beyond the reach of some.

“It makes naturalization much less accessible, and that has been a growing concern in communities across the country,” said Cecilia Munoz with the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic rights organization.

The proposed fee increases, which will raise roughly $1 billion, annually, over the next two years, will be published in the Federal Register.

A 60-day comment period will follow.

“I think you can expect a pretty significant outpouring from immigrant communities and we will see if the agency is responsive,” Munoz said.

About 4.7 million people file applications each year for various services at the USCIS, officials said.

Roughly 8 million legal permanent residents are eligible for citizenship, and about half are Latino, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.

The fee increases will “put the dream of U.S. citizenship beyond the reach of many of our nation’s newcomers,” the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said in a statement.

The increases were determined after an eight-month study into the current fee structure and conducted by USCIS, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the most common fees slated for a significant increase:

• Replace a green card, to $290 from $190;
• Petition for residency for a prospective spouse, to $455 from $170;
• Petition for residency for relative, to $355 from $190;
• Application to register for permanent residency, to $905 from $325;
• Application to adjust temporary status to permanent resident, to $1,370 from $180.
• Applicants must submit a fingerprint and biometric information for an application, and the cost to process that information will rise to $80 from $70. Last October, Gonzalez announced in Miami that the agency was considering fee increases to offset the cost of providing services. He said the proposed changes should not be a surprise.

In addition to a 60-day comment period, the agency will have another 60 days to prepare and implement a new fee structure. Gonzalez said the fee hikes in the final draft could take effect in mid-June.

Congress, meanwhile, has signaled that they may evaluate the agency’s plans.

In a letter last week, Democrats on House and Senate panels that oversee immigration issues told Gonzalez that Congress was prepared to review the study and the analysis that provide the basis of the fee hikes.

Immigrant rights groups called on Gonzalez and USCIS to seek federal funds for capital improvements and infrastructure upgrades, which would lower the fees and make the cost of citizenship more attainable.

“America should be embracing those who want to become citizens, not erecting barriers to achieving this worthy goal,” said Christina DeConcini with the National Immigration Forum.

DeConcini said fees for citizenship have increased four-fold in eight years, “which makes today’s announcement seem like piling on.”

But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration law, said it would be unfair for Americans to burden the costs of a system that they don’t use.

“It’s right for the people who benefit to pay the cost of that benefit, not the taxpayers,” Smith said.

USCIS officials said the last increase was in 2005, and was limited to a jump of 15 percent.

The last major fee restructuring was in 1998, and did not fully recover costs, according to a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress.

That report was critical of the USCIS, and its fee structure, which did not include the rising cost of background and security checks imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Gonzalez said the fee hikes would help create an agency that across the board improves, service, efficiency and security.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about security,” Gonzalez said.