WASHINGTON – Assistance could dry up at the end of this week for people who apply for asylum or refugee status because Congress cut off the money that covers application costs when it created the Homeland Security Department.
The lack of money could halt or significantly slow the flow to this country of refugees and asylum applicants, immigration advocates said. It also could force potential asylum seekers or refugees fleeing dangerous situations to pay fees or require the new Homeland Security Department to divert money from other services to cover costs, they said.
"We obviously are calling on Congress to fix this," said Judy Golub, a senior policy and outreach director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Asylum and refugee services have been paid for with fees that the Immigration and Naturalization Service charges applicants for other immigration benefits, such as green cards. The new homeland security law requires the department to stop charging those fees, as immigration advocates have wanted for years.
However, Congress didn't provide a new source of money to replace the surcharge revenue, which advocates had counted on.
"These are services provided for humanitarian reasons and pursuant to international treaties," said Kevin Appleby, policy director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services. "Congress should appropriate money for this process as opposed to robbing Peter to pay Paul."
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
"Certainly we're aware of it and we're working to ensure the refugee and asylum programs are adequately funded," said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said the INS will continue processing pending asylum and refugee applications but he did not know what the effect on new cases would be.
The money is supposed to be cut off Friday, the same day the Homeland Security Department begins operating.
The INS calculates how much to charge applicants based on the costs of the asylum and refugee services.
For example, the fee to apply for a green card, which signifies permanent residence, is $255. Included in that charge is $38.53 cents for asylum and refugee services. Another $30.88 is charged to help pay the costs for people who can't afford the fee.
Advocates were unsure whether Congress intended to eliminate money for the asylum and refugee services or if lawmakers made a mistake as it hammered out compromise legislation early into a November morning.
"We're hopeful that Congress will understand the ramifications and enact a remedy. And we're hopeful they'll see the rationale of authorizing and appropriating the sums that are necessary for this," Appleby said.
INS will be split in two when it is absorbed into the Homeland Security Department, with a bureau to handle prospective new citizens and other immigration services and another to enforce immigration laws.