Priced out of the American dream?

Original Reporting | By Greg Marx |

Advocates like CLINIC, meanwhile, worry that rising fees may discourage legal immigrants from pursuing permanent residency and citizenship, thus inhibiting integration efforts. (USCIS has acknowledged the concern with respect to citizenship; the naturalization fee, $595, is one of few not to rise during the current increase.) Advocates have also raised concerns that the fee levels force applicants to forego legal assistance, or leave them unable to pay the small fees sought by non-profit groups that help immigrants fill out forms correctly and navigate the system, which could result in further delays. (This argument was less persuasive to USCIS: the formal announcement of the fee increase notes that “it is not a function of [the government] to ensure that the [non-profit] organizations have sufficient funds.”) That announcement, published in the Federal Register, includes other threads of the agency’s response to criticism: fees make up only a portion of the full cost of immigrating; waivers are available in the event of financial hardship; a fully means-tested system would be cumbersome and expensive to operate; and ultimately, “the purpose of the fee schedule is not to establish broad immigration policy or induce individuals to immigrate to the United States, but to recover the costs necessary to operate USCIS.”

Is welcoming legal immigrants, and naturalizing new citizens, itself a “fundamental value” of America?

In other words, its purpose is to relieve current taxpayers from the cost of welcoming legal immigrants. There is reason, though, to believe subsidies are paid by people within the system. In 2000, Congress authorized INS to charge a $1,000 premium fee for employment-backed visa requests; businesses that choose to pay the surcharge receive a decision on a prospective worker’s application within two weeks. The fee, which will rise to $1,225 next month, now represents a substantial revenue stream for USCIS and helps to support the agency’s technology investments. But a pair of 2009 reports by the Government Accountability Office found that because USCIS had not at that time determined how much the expedited service actually cost and set aside funds for it, “the additional costs of premium processing services are funded by nonpremium… applicants, raising equity concerns.”

Further, all fee-paying applicants bear the cost of one expression of America’s national interest. USCIS does not charge fees to refugees and asylum seekers. But because Congress has not historically covered the expense of those services, the policy results in an effective surcharge of $40 on other applicants. The House Appropriations Committee, in its 2010 report, noted that, “it may be appropriate for the costs of these programs to be paid from general tax revenues since they support fundamental values of the United States such as freedom from persecution [and] compassion for the disadvantaged” — and Congress did set aside $50 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2010 for that purpose.

But the appropriation came over the objection of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which had recommended no funding. Under Mayorkas, the agency has requested about $200 million for refugees and asylees in fiscal 2011, enough to cover the cost over a whole year. The Senate committee has suggested no further increase, writing instead that it “supports the existing method used to cover the costs for those activities.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chairman of the relevant subcommittee, did not respond to requests for comment. (The House Appropriations Committee has not completed its 2011 report.)

The House committee report’s invocation of “fundamental values” prompts another question: is welcoming legal immigrants, and naturalizing new citizens, itself a “fundamental value” of America? And if so, should the agency in charge of those tasks be funded by fees in the first place?

That’s a question that seems not to be raised often in this debate, even among those who worry about the impact of higher fees. In February 2007, a House subcommittee held a hearing on the fee increase that was planned for that year. Several members of the committee faulted the erstwhile USCIS director, Emilio Gonzalez, for not asking Congress for more funds. (In his testimony, Gonzalez said that reliance on Congressional appropriations was “part of the [agency’s] funding problem.”) But even they tended to describe the goal as a better balance between fees and appropriated funds, and a more watchful eye to make sure current applicants are not paying for the agency’s past failures. “Immigrants are prepared to pay the cost of processing the applications they submit to USCIS,” said Rep. Luis V. Guitierrez, an Illinois Democrat.

On the advocacy front, Posner said CLINIC has raised arguments about the inherent value of immigrant integration and promoting citizenship when prodding Congress to increase the modest amount it spends in those efforts. (USCIS received a record $11 million for immigrant integration programs in fiscal 2010, and is seeking $7 million for its Office of Citizenship Services in 2011 — a request that the latest Senate report rejected.) But CLINIC has never argued that Congress should cover the agency’s costs in full. “We’ve advocated for them to keep [the fees] lower, but not to eliminate it entirely,” Posner said. Similarly, AILA objected to the latest increase on the grounds that application charges were being used for purposes “unrelated to the services for which fees are being paid” — not that those services were themselves a core government function which might be funded by Congress.

This approach has the benefit of focusing on what seems, in the near term, to be feasible. But the focus on economic concerns and budgetary fairness may, more broadly, help to reinforce a framework in which immigration is seen as a series of individual transactions, rather than a step in the ongoing process of building a cohesive nation.

At the open house, Quarantillo said, “There isn’t anything that the federal government does that’s more important than bringing in new citizens and naturalizing people.” She addressed 25 new citizens at a naturalization ceremony that concluded the event, urging them to help the country live up to the Constitution’s charge to form “a more perfect union.”

“America needs and welcomes the diversity, the energy, and the spirit that each of you brings,” she said. “We are so happy to have you as part of the American family today.” It was a powerful moment, but on reflection it was hard not to wonder: how many families charge you for the privilege of joining?

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