Carlos came to the U.S. looking to provide a safer and more financially stable environment for his family. Like thousands of others, Carlos crossed the border out of necessity. His wife, and one of his young daughters, joined him shortly thereafter.
In 2011, while living in Cary, Carlos was held up at gunpoint near his home by a man who demanded money. Fortunately, when the man realized Carlos did not have any money on him, he left. But the experience understandably left Carlos and his family traumatized. Happily, as part of an effort to encourage vulnerable immigrant communities to report crimes, the U.S. government provides a special visa to victims of crime known as the “U visa.”
While there is technically no cost to apply for the U visa, applicants often need to pay for a separate application, an “I-192,” if the government identifies any reasons why they should not be admitted into the country. Submitting the I-192 to the government costs $930 per person, but immigration regulations provide for a waiver of the fee for low income families. Carlos, who was making about $1,600 per month working as a short order cook while his wife stayed home to avoid child care costs, got a waiver of this fee based on his limited income.
He was lucky. Immigration lawyers across the country report that such fee waivers have become rarer under the current administration.
What’s more, to make matters worse, this humane and commonsense policy could soon change. As part of its relentless effort to erect roadblocks designed to impede immigrants in their efforts to obtain any benefit that might provide a path to permanency in the country, the Trump Administration has announced a proposed rule that would dramatically hike the rates of the waiver Carlos and his family needed, as well as the fees associated with a host of other essential forms.
Under the proposal, the cost of the I-192 would increase from $930 to $1,415 and the form needed to apply for citizenship would go up by $530 to a whopping total of $1,170. To make matters even more troubling, the proposed rule would make the U.S. only the fourth country in the world to charge a fee to apply for asylum.
If the new fees were applied to Carlos’ case, his family would need to pay $4,245 just for the application to get the visa, which does not include any legal fees he would have to pay if he wanted an attorney to review his case before submitting the application. If the application had been denied, no money would have been returned.
Not surprisingly, the fee increases could produce devastating impacts on low-income families – many of whom, like Carlos’, live paycheck to paycheck.
The proposed rule, which could take effect as early as December 16, could also make it difficult for immigrants to pursue full citizenship and thereby fully engage in our democracy. A legal permanent resident, or green card holder, cannot vote, of course, and would need $640 more than the current fee in order to obtain their citizenship and be eligible to vote in the U.S.
In perhaps the clearest sign of the rule’s true intent, the amount to renew a green card is going down by $40, making it cheaper for a green card holder to remain a permanent resident than to apply for citizenship if they are eligible.
The Department of Homeland Security argues that the fee adjustments are needed for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to recover the costs of processing applications for benefits. This justification, however, is incompatible with the allocation of resources USCIS recently made to prioritize enforcement rather that focusing solely on adjudicative functions as it once did. Also, there is no indication that the fee hikes will in any way ameliorate the long delays facing individuals awaiting decisions. Someone like Carlos who files an application for a U visa will have to wait several years before the application is even considered.
The quintessential immigrant story shared by so many Americans is that of their grandparents coming to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs and succeeding despite the obstacles posed by their poverty.
Tragically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the Trump administration has made it clear it does not embrace this history. Instead, the administration continues to advance a steady stream of policy proposals that require individuals looking to gain access to the United States to have substantial financial resources.
It shouldn’t be this way. USCIS should have sufficient funding to make prompt decisions that so deeply impact immigrants’ lives and it’s simply wrong for an agency that should be serving vulnerable people to treat them like ATMs.
Raul Pinto is a senior attorney in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrants and Refugee Rights Project.