By Farida Jhabvala Romero, KQED News
A plan in the works from the Trump administration could make it harder for immigrants to request an exemption from fees when they seek to become citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States.
Monday is the deadline for public comments on a proposal that would eliminate proof of means-tested benefits, such as Medi-Cal or CalFresh food stamps, as a way to qualify for fee waivers in immigration applications. The agency would still offer to waive fees for applicants who can show through other documents they are very low income or have a financial hardship.
In California, the move could exclude more than 200,000 potential applicants for citizenship from obtaining fee waivers, and is likely to discourage others from applying for citizenship, according to researchers.
An application for citizenship now costs a total of $725, while a request for a green card is $1,225.
Opponents argue that the proposal from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would lengthen and complicate the process of requesting a free application by dropping the most straightforward way for people to prove that their income is low.
“This proposal has the potential to affect our clients really seriously, and limit their ability to file their applications,” said Alyssa Simpson, supervising attorney with Catholic Charities of the East Bay. The nonprofit helps about 1,600 low-income immigrants per year to apply for citizenship and humanitarian relief and other visas.
“It’s going to be a longer and dragged out process,” Simpson added. “It's the sort of thing that's going to make people have to seek out lawyers or community agencies when, in the past, they might have been able to file on their own.”
Currently, USCIS will waive the application fees of immigrants who are enrolled in means-tested programs administered by states, or who can prove through other documents that they are very low income or have a financial hardship.
The agency argues that the “means-tested benefit receipt” is unfair and should be eliminated, because different states use different income levels to grant food stamps and other federally-funded programs.
“Consequently, a fee waiver may be granted for one person who has a certain level of income in one state, but denied for a person with that same income who lives in another state,” according to the USCIS notice in the Federal Register.
USCIS did not return requests for comment.
About 220,000 people in California who are eligible for citizenship and also enrolled in means-tested programs would no longer qualify for a free application if the new policy takes effect, said Michael Hotard, a researcher with the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University.
He said the changes could deter eligible green card holders from becoming U.S. citizens.
“Making it harder to use the fee waiver will certainly discourage some potential citizens from actually applying,” said Hotard, the lead author in a recent study that found that just telling low-income immigrants that they might qualify for a fee waiver boosted citizenship application rates.
In California, roughly 2.4 million people are eligible to become naturalized citizens, and about half of them are eligible to have their application fee waived, a higher proportion than for the rest of the country, according to Hotard.
The proposed change to fee waivers comes as the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, put forward a budget plan earlier this year to move nearly $208 million in revenue from USCIS application fees to support agents working on immigration enforcement. Congress declined the request, citing concerns about USCIS’s backlog of more than 750,000 pending immigration applications.
Melissa Rodgers, director of the New Americans Campaign, a national coalition of nonprofits based in San Francisco, decried that plan to divert money from processing immigration applications to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I think it's an extremely cynical proposal from an agency that right now is proposing to make it harder for poor people to access immigration benefits for which they qualify by attacking the fee waiver pathway,” said Rodgers.
Unlike most other federal agencies, which are funded by appropriations from Congress, USCIS depends on the fees it collects from immigrants to cover the majority of its operating costs. The agency periodically reviews its fees, and implemented its latest fee increase in 2016.
USCIS waived an estimated $344 million dollars in fees in fiscal year 2016, up from $223 million in 2013, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report to Congress.
Becoming naturalized U.S. citizens gives people born abroad the right to vote and protects them from deportation. Research also suggests that immigrants who become citizens are able to earn higher wages, which can benefit their families and larger communities.
“We live in areas where immigrants are living and working, and they're our friends our neighbors, and so I think it affects all of us,” said Simpson, the attorney.