Utah advocates blast fee hikes for legal immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, asylum

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) More than 125 new citizens of the United States clap as after taking the oath of citizenship, during a naturalization ceremony at the Jeanné Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, July 3, 2019.

Recently announced plans to significantly increase fees for legal immigrants seeking to become citizens or requesting U.S. asylum are inhumane, especially during the pandemic, say immigrant advocates in Utah.

“[Increasing fees] is wrong during a time when families are already struggling with unemployment, housing and getting sick with COVID-19,” said Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a policy analyst and community organizer for Voices for Utah Children. “It will affect so many of our low-income immigrant families negatively.”

On July 31, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced hikes in fees for dozens of immigration and work applications, including a $530 increase on naturalization applications and a first-time $50 fee for asylum applicants.

The jump in naturalization application fees from $640 to $1,170 represents an 83% increase for legal permanent residents seeking citizenship, and the United States will become one of just four countries in the world — Fiji, Iran and Australia are the others — to charge a fee for immigrants seeking asylum.

“The asylum fee is offensive because asylum is a humanitarian gesture,” said Mark Alvarez, an immigration lawyer in West Valley City. Alvarez explained that in order to qualify for asylum, a person has to show in court a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

“If we’re being humanitarian by letting them in, recognizing many of those seeking asylum are not people of means, it seems that that should be something the government funds itself as most countries around the world do,” Alvarez said.

The fee increases are expected to take effect Oct. 2. The new ruling notes that the USCIS has not taken the COVID-19 pandemic into account in adjusting these fees because it began the fee review in 2017.

USCIS has closed offices and suspended most services during the pandemic, and has said it faces a significant revenue shortfall that could trigger furloughs. The agency does not operate like its other federal counterparts, collecting the entirety of its funds from fees.

Earlier this year, USCIS requested $1.2 billion in emergency funds from Congress.

“Overall, the structure is failing people who are aspiring to be citizens,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “Whether they’re coming over, or they’re already here, [the increased fee] just places an extra burden on them. … I just don’t support it.”

Romero believes there are “other ways we could make the process easier without increasing the fee to provide staffing. If we look at our federal budget, there are other places where we can take money away.”

Alvarez said that just to become a U.S. citizen, an applicant has to have been a lawful permanent resident for three years if married to a U.S. citizen and for five years if not.

“The United States has a history of encouraging lawful permanent residents to become citizens because it sort of comes as a prestige for the U.S. that these people are willing to renounce their citizenship in another country to be a citizen in the United States,” Alvarez said. “It seems like that would be something we’d want to encourage, not discourage.”

The requirements to apply for citizenship aren’t simple, Alvarez noted. Applicants must complete an N-400 form, have an interview with an immigration officer to demonstrate, according to the USCIS website, “good moral character, attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution, and a basic ability to read, write, speak and understand basic English,” and take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States in order to become naturalized citizens.

“There are a lot of lawful permanent residents here who might think twice about applying for citizenship because of that increased fee,” Alvarez said. “Some people may find a way to raise the money to pay the extra fee, but even if that’s true, it’s wrong for the government to do so.”

According to USCIS data obtained by Forbes via the Freedom of Information Act, between 2014 and 2019, employers paid $2.39 billion in premium processing fees to avoid slow processing by the agency. Forbes reported that it could take up to a year for an application to be processed without paying the premium fee.

USCIS determined that current fees do not recover the full cost of adjudication and naturalization services, according to the document published July 31.

“I actually don’t buy that,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know why it’s being done, but it’s hard not to think there aren’t partisan politics behind it. We’re less than three months away from an election. Is this part of an election strategy? I’m skeptical; I think it could be.”

Alvarez Valle said that the fee increases “really show the anti-immigrant rhetoric and work that is being done at the federal level. … It’s really frustrating that people who already want to become citizens, have already spent the time and resources to study for the test and get a lawyer, are then hit with this huge increase. How are they supposed to pay for it now?”

Asylees will also have to pay a $550 initial fee to gain a work permit, even though they won’t be allowed to work before then. Alvarez explained asylum seekers will likely have to work with nonprofit organizations to raise funds to cover the fees.

“People that are seeking asylum are afraid to go back to their home country,” Romero said. “What we’re seeing at a national level, and how we’re seeing people being caged [at immigrant detention centers] shows there’s just so many problematic issues. I think we’re focusing on the wrong thing [by increasing fees].”

USCIS, which oversees the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, did remove a proposed $275 renewal fee for DACA recipients, those who were brought to the United States illegally as children. But the Trump Administration said on July 28 that it would deny all new DACA applications, even after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected President Donald Trump’s attempt to end the program in June.

Young immigrants dubbed “Dreamers” by the Obama administration cannot obtain a driver license or a work permit, receive unemployment benefits or stimulus checks, or gain access to many private scholarships to further their education until they receive DACA status.

“I’m a DACA recipient myself, and I know that when I received it when I was an 18-year-old, the difference that it made for me,” said Alvarez Valle, who was born in Mexico but moved to Utah with her family before she started elementary school. “It’s hard to imagine all of the young people that are just like me that won’t receive the same opportunity to work and continue their education with DACA.”

Romero said that many of her son’s peers still don’t have citizenship, even though they’ve lived in the states for years and are in college now.

“That leaves them country-less,” she said. “We, as a country, could do better, but right now we are focusing on things that aren’t as critical. We could beef up pathways, but we get so caught up in partisan politics and the rhetoric that we forget about the people. We forget about how we’re hurting families.”