Advocates urge immigrants to act fast, as higher citizenship fees loom

Published Nov. 27, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Immigration experts and advocates in Arizona are urging people to file their paperwork as soon as possible as federal agencies eye steeper processing fees across a broad range of citizenship forms.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced plans this month to raise the fees it charges for everything from applying for naturalization to renewing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, from asylum requests to petitions to suspend removals from the U.S.

Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said the increases, which average 21% across all forms, are need to cover the “true cost” of business for the agency, which is almost entirely dependent on fees for its budget. Without the new prices, the agency said it could be underfunded by $1.3 billion a year.

But advocates who guide people through the various applications fear that the fee increase will prevent people from applying.

“This is not good business. This is not good American values. And it’s going to bring a lot of hardships to communities that already live in hardships,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.

Among changes proposed by the agency, the cost of filing for naturalization would rise 83%, from $640 to $1,170, while DACA recipients would see a 55% increase in the cost of a renewal application, from $495 to $765. The agency has also proposed a new $50 fee for refugees granted asylum, and a whopping increase in the cost of applying for delayed removal, from $285 to $1,800.

In addition to paying for current services, the agency said the additional money is needed to more thoroughly vet applicants through social media screens and in-person interviews, shorten processing times and hire more employees to handle the workload. The agency also plans on hiring more than 6,400 employees with the money.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis,” Cuccinelli said in a news release.

The agency, which got just under $143 million in funding from Congress in fiscal 2019, last raised fees in 2016. Cuccinelli said it relies on fees for 96% of its budget.

Organizations advocating for immigration reform said the USCIS’ plan sends “a clear message that Americans value citizenship.”

“It’s a balancing act that USCIS has to do with these applications,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies. The fees, she said, have “been underpriced for a very long time.”

“It’s about time to adjust those fees so that they can avoid delays,” she said.

Rising application fees are nothing new: Those applying for naturalization in 1989 were charged $60, less than one-tenth the current fee.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said that while the increases are not unique to any administration, she questioned the need for some of the expanded services under the latest proposal.

“Part of the fee increase would’ve happened under any administration, under any policy regime, as costs go up over time. But part of the fee increase is probably the result of policy decisions that the administration is making,” Gelatt said.

She also noted that the proposal calls for transferring $207.6 million from USCIS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Matthew O’Brien, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the increase a reasonable approach by an agency that operates largely on the money it raises. The higher fees also indirectly help deter threats from abroad, he said.

“Charging responsible filing fees for immigration benefits sends a clear message that Americans value membership in our civic community and we will not carelessly hand out that privilege to those who are not willing to pay their own way,” he said in an emailed statement.

But Falcon said current fees already present a hurdle to applicants otherwise “eager” to complete the process.

“We’re helping people as much as we can to get in before the deadline, both at the DACA level and at the citizenship level,” she said.

Falcon and other members of her nonprofit are leading education campaigns about the fees, while encouraging people to oppose the increase. A public comment period that runs through Dec. 16 had attracted 4,256 comments by Wednesday.

Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney, said he has advised his clients to naturalize as soon as they are eligible.

“Waiting for a better time doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the horizon,” Reyes said.

Despite ICE detainer ruling, business as usual for Arizona sheriffs

WASHINGTON – Two weeks after a federal court halted some detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Arizona law enforcement agencies say they are still doing business with the agency as usual.

A U.S. District judge in Central California ruled last month that ICE requests to hold people based solely on an electronic database of biometric data are an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment.

But the ruling exempts states where state law allowed local officials to hold immigrants, and Arizona is one of those states. That leaves the decision to county sheriffs – a fact that one Phoenix immigration attorney said has left cases in the state “all over the map.”

State law allows county sheriffs “the authority to develop their own protocol consistent with the law,” said Ryan Anderson, a spokesman with the Arizona attorney general’s office. He said the law bars detention of people for “longer than necessary” on suspicion of being here illegally.

But the law, supplemented by a set of guides from the attorney general, leaves enforcement to local discretion, he said. That includes how they handle ICE detainers.

For Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, that means turning people over to Border Patrol, but only if federal authorities can come immediately and pick them up. Estrada will not hold them, unless federal officials have a warrant, he said.

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“If people are released, they have the right to move on,” Estrada said.

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier said his office will hand over someone on whom there is an active detainer request, and it will cooperate with ICE as needed. But county officials will not work on ICE’s behalf, he said.

“I wouldn’t expect a Border Patrol agent or ICE official to write parking tickets in Pima County,” Napier said. “It’s not their job.”

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said his deputies will cooperate with federal agencies, “if there’s a collective effort or mission.” That includes honoring detainers and picking up those believed to be in the country illegally.

“What it means in practice is, it’s all over the map,” said Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney, of the way local authorities in the state decide to handle detainer requests.

“It’s not so cut and dry,” Reyes said. “Is 30 minutes too long? Is 20 minutes too long?”

Even though Arizona is mostly unchanged, Reyes welcomed the Sept. 27 injunction by U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr., who said that “fatal” flaws in the database ICE uses to make decisions on whether or not to detain people made the policy unconstitutional.

“Citizenship and immigration status are complex inquiries that sometimes require information that cannot be obtained through databases that do not receive constant updates or real-time information about a subject,” Birotte wrote.

The ruling was attacked Thursday in a White House press briefing by Acting ICE Director Matt Albence, who called it an overreach by a court that vilifies ICE employees while risking “the release of criminal aliens back onto the street.”

“Make no mistake: Rulings from any individual federal court sitting in a single judicial district but purporting to cripple ICE authorities on a nationwide basis puts people at risk – innocent victims whose lives will be forever changed for the worse all across our great country,” Albence said.

Albence, joined by sheriffs from around the U.S. and assistant director Barbara Gonzalez, said the ruling will also hurt relations with states and localities. He said “the vast majority” of county sheriffs see the benefit of working with ICE and honoring its requests.

“We have done this for decades because it is good policy and it is even better public safety,” he said.

Birotte’s decision is the latest in several years of legal battles between immigration advocacy groups and the federal government. Salvador Sarmiento, national campaign director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, welcomed the ruling and said the White House event is evidence of what he sees as political desperation.

“The more they speak, it’s basically just galvanizing more people to oppose” them, said Sarmiento, whose organization is one of several involved in the suit.

Birotte did not block detainers outright: He ruled only on those based on the database search and not where, for example, an immigrant tells authorities he is here illegally.

But Reyes called the injunction a step toward more humane immigration law that “hinders the scope and the quickness with which the agency’s been able to” detain based entirely on the databases.

“It takes away one tool” ICE has historically used, Reyes said, “but it doesn’t take away the toolbox.”