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After two decades of waiting, Patricia Ramirez of New Mexico was filled with joy when she finally became eligible for a green card a few months ago. To Ramirez, who came to the U.S. undocumented, becoming a lawful permanent resident would give her more security living in the U.S., allow her to visit her family in Mexico, and put her one step closer to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Now, the main obstacle getting in her way is the cost of applications. Ramirez, a house cleaner, has been saving for months to afford the $2,225 in fees for a green card and other forms. Under a new federal proposal, her paperwork may become even more expensive.
“It’s already been a very difficult process, difficult to get information, difficult to save money,” Ramirez told NPR. “I’m so worried and stressed about this and what sacrifices I’ll have to make to afford this.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees legal immigration, is planning to raise costs for an array of applications including ones required for citizenship naturalization, to obtain a green card, or to legally work in the U.S. as a noncitizen.
The increases vary, but many immigration attorneys are concerned that the fee hikes could place an undue burden on low-income immigrants — particularly those seeking lawful permanent residency, commonly known as a green card, which allows immigrants long-term stay in the U.S. It is also an important step to become eligible for citizenship.
Under the proposal, Ramirez’s applications will cost $1,500 more than before, according to legal representative Shalini Thomas, who represents Ramirez through the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
She added that Ramirez is not the only one who finds the immigration applications unaffordable.
“I’ve had plenty of clients come in and I say, ‘We believe you’re eligible, here is everything that you need, including the fees,’ and I just never hear from them again because I know they can’t save up,” she told NPR. “These changes do not make that better.”
The new costs have not been finalized. USCIS is currently holding a public comment period until March 6.
The federal agency says it needs the increased fees to deal with backlogs and a budget crunch
USCIS primarily relies on fees to operate — which proved to be an issue during the pandemic.
As fewer people applied for immigration benefits, the federal agency’s revenue plummeted, leading to widespread furloughs and a backlog in immigration cases.
To fully recover, the federal agency said it needs to raise application fees, adding that the proposed prices are expected to generate $1.9 billion more per year than current application costs.
“This is the amount necessary to match agency capacity with projected workloads, so that backlogs do not accumulate in the future,” USCIS wrote in its proposal released in early January.
The federal agency generally updates its fee schedule every few years, the last time being 2016. During the Trump administration, there was an attempt to raise costs dramatically, as well make it harder for poor immigrants to qualify for fee waivers, but federal judges eventually blocked those changes.
Karen Sullivan, the director of advocacy at Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., said she wants to see USCIS fully funded, fully staffed and operating efficiently, but questions whether low-income immigrants should have to bear that responsibility.
“All of us should want migrant communities to have access to the benefits that they qualify for,” Sullivan told NPR. “So, I think that Congress should take notice, as far as appropriations go, in helping USCIS with additional funding.”
In fiscal year 2022, the federal agency did receive $275 million from Congress to reduce the current backlog. USCIS expects to continue needing congressional support to fully eliminate it.
The proposed fee changes are a means to allow USCIS to keep up with incoming inventories and avoid future backlogs, the agency said.
A family of four would pay up to $7,460 for green cards and work permits
Under the proposal, applying for a green card with biometrics, or biological measurements, will go up from $1,225 to $1,540. Biometrics — which include fingerprints, a photo and signature — are often required for green cards and other forms.
Although people are currently allowed to apply for a green card and work permit together, the proposed rule will unbundle the forms — which would, in turn, raise costs.
Applications to apply for citizenship may go up by $120; visas for religious workers may increase by $555; and petitions to remove conditions on residence with biometrics, which can allow spouses of green card holders to transition to lawful permanent residents, would increase by $515.
Those fees can especially add up for families filing together.
According to Kathy Klos, an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a family of four applying for green cards and two work permits would currently pay $3,950 in fees if filing on paper. That price would go up to $7,460 if they file on paper, and $7,270 if they file online.
“From under $4,000 to almost $7,500 is ridiculous,” Klos told NPR.
The hefty price tag is only one of the hoops to jump through in order to gain legal status in the U.S. Forms can be complicated, processing times can be long and appointments for biometrics or interviews can be a serious inconvenience to students or working adults.
“For people who are born here and never had to deal with the immigration system, they don’t have a great understanding of how difficult it really is,” Klos said.
Fee waivers only help to some extent
USCIS does offer fee waivers to some low-income immigrants and fee exemptions for humanitarian reasons, such as for refugees, asylum-seekers and domestic violence victims.
Generally, households that make less than 150% of the federal poverty line are eligible for discounted applications to a number of immigration benefits. That could include a single adult who makes less than $21,000 per year or a family of four that earns $45,000.
USCIS expects that more than a million applicants — about an eighth of the total — will benefit from fee exemptions or fee waivers each year. But some say the process to apply for one can be long and difficult.
“The fee waivers are not automatic, they add more time to your case,” Daniel Santiago, an attorney with Mabel Center for Immigrant Justice in Boston, told NPR. “And our clients are desperate to get the paperwork done.”
Under the proposed changes, some applications filed online will be cheaper than on paper. USCIS says online applications are easier and cheaper to process than paper ones. But some immigration attorneys find that unfair.
“To offer a discount if you’re filing online helps the most privileged of immigrants, but truly doesn’t help the most marginalized,” said Thomas of the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
Thomas said her client, Ramirez, is ineligible for a fee waiver because she is applying for a green card through a family member.
Ramirez has been waiting for an opportunity to become green card eligible for 22 years. Although she’s close to filing the paperwork, Ramirez has a sense that the process has just begun.
“It took me months to pay the current costs. If they go up, I might have to look for another job or get a loan,” she said. “Right now, my plan is to get my application done as soon as possible.”