WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is proposing to nearly double the cost of becoming a U.S. citizen and drastically raise the cost of becoming a legal permanent resident.
Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, announced Wednesday it wants to raise the application fee for citizenship from $330 to $595 and the fee for becoming a legal permanent resident from $325 to $905. But the agency plans to eliminate other costs those legal residency applicants often pay while they are waiting for their permanent residency to be final.
Emilio Gonzalez, Citizenship and Immigration Services director, said more than 99 percent of the agency's costs are paid for with application fees. The increases are needed to make up for lost revenue and to help the agency become "the immigration service of the 21st century," he said.
"We need to grow. We need to strengthen. We need to modernize. We need to provide the very best possible customer service. We need to provide the very best possible security infrastructure for what we do," Gonzalez said.
The agency said the new fees would reduce average application processing times by 20 percent by the end of September 2009.
The agency said it would raise $2 billion over those two years from the fee increases. The money is to be spent on improving immigration offices, technology, hiring and training; background checks of immigrants and speeding up completing applications.
Applicants now pay a $70 fingerprinting fee. The agency wants to increase that to $80. Fees also are paid for work permits, replacing lost green cards and petitions to adopt orphans from other countries and other benefits.
The largest increases are a jump from $475 to $2,850 for entrepreneurs who want to immigrate to the country and plan to invest in businesses and create jobs, and an increase from $180 to $1,370 for people still applying to be legal residents under the 1986 immigration law that granted amnesty.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship, criticized the hefty fee hikes, saying they would "price the American Dream out of reach for qualified immigrants" seeking to become citizens.
"We must look to other solutions for funding the necessary work of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services," Kennedy said. "We are a nation of immigrants and Congress should recognize its responsibility to support the vital work of immigration services by appropriating the necessary funds."
The proposed increases would not be final until after a public comment and review period. They will likely go into effect in mid-June, Gonzalez said.
Congressional Democrats last week warned in a letter to Gonzalez that they planned to review the agency's analyses behind any proposed immigration fee increases.
But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said it was "right for the people who benefit to pay the cost of that benefit -- not taxpayers."
Immigration advocates have been bracing for the expected jump in fees. William Ramos, Washington director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the increases would be "devastating to our communities" and "create another obstacle" for those who want to be citizens.
Citizenship and Immigration Services agency is required to do a fee analysis every two years to determine whether money raised from fees is covering costs. The agency last raised its fees in 2004, citing the cost of more intense background checks in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2005, it raised all fees $10 for inflation.
Immigrant advocates long have argued that the agency's costs cannot be absorbed by application fees. They want Congress to appropriate money to help pay costs. They have also criticized the backlogs in applications, lost files and other problems.
Traci Hong, director of the immigration program for the Asian American Justice Center, said the proposed fees would cause a "substantial burden" to Asian Americans, who have a high naturalization rate. About 70 percent of Asian immigrants become citizens, she said.
"Everyone agrees these improvements need to be made. If that is the case we challenge U.S. CIS and Congress to fund this endeavor and not put it on the backs of immigrants and their families," Hong said.
Any immigration legislation passed this year is likely to include a guest worker program. Gonzalez said it will be up to Congress to decide how to fund costs to his agency for such a program but the fee increases aren't for a possible guest worker program.