Higher immigration fees put on hold

Court cites process issues, impact on low-income immigrants

FOR THOUSANDS of Massachusetts immigrants worried about paying higher fees for immigration and citizenship applications, the significant increases have been held at bay —at least temporarily.

A federal judge in California last week granted a nationwide preliminary injunction against the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, barring the agency from hiking fees on October 2 for applications for naturalization, international student work authorizations, and others.

In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey White of the US District Court for the Northern District of California validated the plaintiffs’ claims that the increases of as much as 80 percent were invalid because the key decision makers – acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and his predecessor – were never confirmed by Congress and their decision-making process violated federal regulatory procedures.

White also said the nationwide injunction was in the public interest because the sudden high costs would have a negative impact on low-income immigrants, who were likely to suffer “irreparable harm.”

Current filing fees will remain in effect until the injunction is lifted. It is expected that the federal government will appeal White’s decision.

Federal officials have indicated they will have to cut costs at the agency if the fee hikes are not approved. Joseph Edlow, deputy director of policy at the agency, said the agency is funded by the fees it charges and current fee levels do not cover costs.

Eliana Nader, president of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the fees were arbitrary and excessive. “In some cases, the fees were going to be doubled or tripled,” she said.

Project Citizenship has filed a similar suit in Massachusetts challenging the new asylum fees. “We’re thrilled the California court has blocked the planned increase and fee elimination. We hope government will rescind the proposed rule and continue to urge all legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship as soon as possible,” said staff attorney Erin Fricker.

The City of Boston had previously filed an amicus brief in their case on behalf of 34 cities, counties, and municipal agencies asking a federal court to stop a new rule from going into effect.

The federal agency’s proposal would increase the cost to become a US citizen by more than 80 percent, raising the fee from $640 to $1,160.  Currently, immigrants who have an income that is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for a full fee waiver, and those with an income between 150 and 200 percent of the federal guideline qualify for a partial fee reduction. Those waivers would be eliminated under the new rule.

Asylum applications, currently free, would rise to $50. Asylum applicant applications for work authorizations would rise from zero to $490.

The proposal would also increase from $460 to $555 the fee for H-1 B petitions, which are used by technology company employees to recruit foreign workers. L-visa petitions, used by managers and high-level employees for companies, would rise by 75 percent, going from $460 to $805. Work permits for international students employed for a year after graduating would go from $410 to $550.

Premium (high-speed) processing for visas would take longer- going from two to three weeks, despite the costs to apply going up.