Immigrants could end up paying thousands of dollars more to enter and stay in the country after July 30, when dozens of application fees will double or even triple, sparking opposition from a broad coalition of activists and a rush by immigrants to submit their paperwork before the little-publicized changes take effect.
Altogether, 39 fees will rise an average of 66 percent, but some of the largest increases will come in charges for the most basic documents immigrants must seek. Most notably, the fee to apply for a green card, establishing legal residence in the United States, will almost triple, from $395 to $1,010.
Applying for citizenship will rise from $400 to $675. It cost $90 as recently as 1991.
The increases are expected to raise an extra $1.1 billion a year for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, which is required to cover its costs with the fees it collects from the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who seek residency and citizenship each year.
Simply put, “we need the money,” USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez said. “To do nothing is to invite organizational disaster, because we are just not covering the cost of doing business.”
Heavy burden on poorer immigrants
But immigration activists said the higher fees would be a permanent obstacle for many immigrants, many of whom take minimum-wage day labor jobs paying $5.15 an hour. They calculated that a worker would have to save every penny he or she earned for five weeks just to apply for a green card.
The National Association of Latino Elected Officials said it “strongly condemns” the higher fees, which it said will “put the dream of U.S. citizenship beyond the reach of many of our nation’s newcomers.” It urged all eligible legal residents to apply for naturalization before July 30.
“The USCIS does need to make major investments to enhance the delivery of its services, and it does face serious fiscal challenges,” the association said in a statement. “However, placing the full costs of these investments on the back of hardworking newcomers is driving fees to a level that immigrants simply cannot afford.”
Some Democrats in Congress pressured USCIS to abandon the increases. They said much of the agency’s budget pays for enforcement, which legal applicants should not be responsible for.
Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, both D-Ill., have introduced legislation to lessen the burden by shifting funding from USCIS fees to the federal budget, while Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., sent a letter to President Bush calling for a fairer system.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship, criticized the hefty fee hikes when they were first proposed in January, saying they would “price the American dream out of reach for qualified immigrants” seeking to become citizens.
Opposition from variety of sources
The new fee schedule also drew opposition from a spectrum of groups representing business, education and the arts.
Business groups, led by the trucking industry, criticized higher fees for waivers allowing foreigners with criminal records into the country on business. The new fee, $545, will sharply raise costs for commercial cross-border trucking and shipping, they said, costs that would inevitably be passed on to consumers.
International students applying for a practical training or employment authorization form will pay $340, nearly double the $180 they pay now. Fees for several other documents important to international students will also rise by $100 or more, including applications for non-immigrant arrival and departure records, petitions for non-immigrant workers and applications for extended stays as a non-immigrant.
The American Arts Alliance, meanwhile, complained that higher fees would make it harder for artists, especially those affiliated with nonprofit enterprises, to travel to American audiences.
“Delays and unpredictability in visa processing have made it increasingly difficult for international artists to appear in the United States,” the alliance said.
Immigrants rush to file papers
As awareness of the new fees courses through immigrant communities, tens of thousands were streaming to local immigration offices to avoid the surcharges.
Immigration activists in Miami opened Centro de Orientación dell Inmigrante, a temporary service, to help speed applicants through the process before July 30. Telemundo affiliate WSCV-TV reported that organizers hoped to secure funding from national immigration groups to make the center permanent.
In Union City, N.J., Mayor Brian Stack and city commissioners scheduled a “citizenship drive” for Saturday to help residents complete their forms in time. Meanwhile, the surge in applications spurred USCIS to temporarily transfer 32 workers to Los Angeles to help handle the load.
Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com and The Associated Press contributed to this report.