Critics say hikes could have ‘devastating impact,’ serve as ‘another form of voter suppression’
The Trump administration has nearly doubled the cost of applying to become a U.S. citizen, a development immigration advocates are likening to “another form of voter suppression.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a final rule in the Federal Register recently detailing a hike in fees for some of its most common immigration procedures, including an 81 percent increase in the cost to apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.
The fee to apply for naturalization will increase from $640 to $1,160 if filed online, or $1,170 in paper filing. The agency also announced increases in fees for dozens of other immigration and work applications set to go into effect on Oct. 2.
Critics of the fee increases argue that the new financial burdens during a major economic downturn will prevent lawful permanent residents — also known as “green card” holders — from seeking full U.S. citizenship and gaining the right to vote.
“In short, we see this as an attack on immigrants on behalf of the current administration,” said Rosa Molina, director of immigration services for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). “What they want is to prevent people from becoming citizens, thus suppressing the vote.”
More than 23 million U.S. immigrants will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, making up about 10 percent of the electorate, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on Census Bureau data.
“This is another form of voter suppression in a state that just passed election protections,” said LaLo Montoya, the political director at Make The Road Nevada, a nonprofit organizing for immigrant and workers rights. “The state needs to recognize it as voter suppression.”
The immigration agency, however, said in a statement that the increase in fees was necessary to recover operational costs. The USCIS is funded primarily by fees from applications it processes.
According to the statement, the Department of Homeland Security agency adjusted fees by a weighted average increase of 20 percent to avoid a funding shortfall estimated at $1 billion per year.
“These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans,” said Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, in a press release.
‘A devastating impact’
Raul Pinto, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project lamented the change last week as “yet another effort to make it harder for people to do things legally.”
Pinto called particular attention to the increased costs assigned to applications for asylum (a status that is, by definition, designed for people in desperate straits) and so-called “U Visas,” which are designed to aid people who have been the victims of crime.
Late last year, Pinto authored an opinion column for Policy Watch in which he explored the kinds of real world impacts the changes will have and predicted “devastating impact on low-income families [who] live paycheck to paycheck.” (Disclosure: the Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.)
Kelly Morales, Rapid Response Coordinator for the immigrant rights group Siembra NC issued a statement in which she also condemned the increases:
This is just another Trump Administration policy designed to intimidate immigrants in states like North Carolina where they are a growing share of the population. It’s literally an immigrant poll tax. There’s no real justification for raising the fees by 81%, particularly not when immigrants are so disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. But most likely Trump Administration officials, when they designed this fee increase, knew that there were 170,000 legal permanent residents living in North Carolina in 2015, almost all of whom will be eligible to apply for citizenship in 2020. This fee will discourage some from doing that, which is surely the administration’s goal.”
Michael Shamoon, a fellow at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Immigration Clinic, said some of the most drastic rate increases include work visas, citizenship, permanent legal residence and documents for families of crime victims.
Petitions for employment authorization went up by 34 percent to $550 and are no longer included in the cost of adjustment of status applications.
“The effect of this fee increase is that many individuals will now not be able to apply for immigration benefits, specifically adjustment of status, employment authorization and naturalization,” said Shamoon. “It’s going to make it really difficult for people to apply for those benefits.”
“This will definitely disproportionately affect lower income immigrants,” Shamoon said. “To a certain extent that’s a consequence USCIS and the administration as a whole are aware of.”
Molina, the director of immigration services for PLAN, said her office has received a lot of calls from people who want to apply for naturalization before the price hike in October, but government shutdowns due to the pandemic have made it difficult. Many of her clients have even had their citizenship ceremony rescheduled.
Those delays may become worse in the coming months. The USCIS is expected to furlough more than 13,000 employees at the end of August due to projected deficits, potentially increasing application backlogs.
Currently, processing for naturalization in Charlotte is taking between 7.5 to 18.5 months, according to USCIS’ online processing times calculator. In the Raleigh office, that time frame is between 6 to 10 months.
In North Carolina, there were nearly 8,843 naturalization applications pending as of March 31, according to the latest data from USCIS. During the same time period in 2016, the application backlog was at just 5,710.
Between the pandemic, the furloughs and other factors, citizenship applicants “may see wait time double if not more than double,” Shamoon said.
Impacting victims of crime
The hike in U visa fees could serve as a significant disincentive to victims of crime from coming forward to be of assistance to law enforcement agencies.
Families of immigrants who worked the Las Vegas Route 91 festival, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern history, will likely be affected by the fee increase, said Montoya, the political director of Make the Road Nevada.
Survivors of the shooting applied for a U visa in the aftermath of the shooting, a visa meant for victims of crimes who meet certain requirements. Holders of a U visa can legally live in the U.S. for four years. After three years of having a U Visa a person can apply for a green card to stay in the U.S permanently.
But the fee increase also includes the I-929, a petition for qualifying family members of victims of criminal activity, raising the cost from $230 to $1,485 an increase of 546 percent.
Make The Road Nevada worked with survivors to apply for the visas.
“One of the reasons the community is worried is because it’s a bad time to raise fees especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Molina. “They won’t be able to pay that kind of money. There’s a lot of people who are probably going to remain permanent residents because they are not going to have the option to become U.S. citizens.”
[Editor’s note: This story was first reported by and published in NC Policy Watch’s States Newsroom partner publication, the Nevada Current. Rob Schofield contributed to this report.]