A 'Wealth Test for Citizenship': California Advocates Slam Trump Plan to Hike Fees

A volunteer (R) assists an immigrant with her U.S. citizenship application in 2016.  (John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigration advocates in California decried the Trump administration’s decision to sharply increase the cost of U.S. citizenship, work permits and other immigration benefits at a time when non-citizens face particularly devastating job losses because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that oversees lawful immigration to this country, plans to eliminate most of the fee waivers that have helped millions of low-income immigrants afford these petitions in the past.

The changes, set to go into effect on Oct. 2, will nearly double the naturalization fee to up to $1,170, and start charging asylum seekers $550 to request an initial work permit, according to a new rule published Monday after an eight-month review.

“It’s a terrible, terrible rule,” said Melissa Rodgers, who directs the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide network of organizations helping immigrants apply for naturalization. “We have the Trump administration creating the United States’ first-ever wealth test for citizenship, and that in a year when more than 50 million residents have filed for unemployment.”

Under the new rule, applicants for lawful permanent residency – also known as a green card – will be charged an additional $550 for work authorization, raising the total cost of the application to at least $1,680.

For the first time ever, asylum seekers will be charged $50 to apply for the protections. Only three other countries – Australia, Fiji and Iran – charge fees for asylum seekers.

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The fee increases come at a time when USCIS is threatening to furlough more than two-thirds of its staff later this month, unless Congress provides it with a $1.2 billion bailout to sustain operations.

Unlike other federal agencies, USCIS depends on application fees to fund the vast majority of its operations. In its new rule, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, said getting rid of fee exemptions and raising charges will help the agency recuperate the full costs of adjudicating petitions.

After DHS proposed most of the changes back in November, many raised concerns eligible immigrants would be discouraged or priced out from U.S. citizenship and other petitions. But DHS largely dismissed those public comments.

“DHS believes that immigration to the United States remains attractive to millions of individuals around the world and that its benefits continue to outweigh the costs noted by the commenters,” according to the rule.

In California, more than 2.2 million immigrants are eligible to become U.S. citizens, the most of any state nationwide.

The current cost of applying, $725, is a barrier to many low-income immigrants who are eligible to naturalize as American citizens.

USCIS may waive the fees associated with processing an application if the individual proves they are unable to pay. Between 2013 and 2016, the agency approved 2 million requests for fee waivers, foregoing more than $1 billion in revenue, according to the agency.

Under the new rule, only victims of domestic violence or severe human trafficking crimes and other vulnerable populations who are very low income will be eligible for fee waivers. Green card, naturalization and other applicants will no longer have the option of fee exemptions regardless of their income level, while facing dramatically higher charges.

“The increases are sending a really loud message that there is a paywall to receive immigration benefits,” said Elena Fairley, programs director at Mission Asset Fund, a nonprofit in San Francisco that provided 0% interest loans to hundreds of people to apply for U.S. citizenship last year.

“And that combined with other policies from the current administration, is making it exceedingly difficult for people to become citizens in this country and participate fully,” she added.

Fairley said her organization expects more immigrants will need financial help to afford application fees, but she anticipates raising funds to cover those loans will become more difficult because of the pandemic.

Immigrants have faced deeper job cuts than U.S.-born workers during the COVID-19 recession: a 19% drop in employment compared to 12%, according to the Pew Research Center. In California, UC Merced researchers estimate 688,000 non-citizens lost jobs during the first weeks of the pandemic, with the highest impact among immigrant women.