U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a final rule on July 31 that…
The Trump administration is planning a sharp increase in the cost of naturalization this fall. Critics say it is part of a pattern intended to discourage immigration from poor nations. A newly naturalized citizen celebrated after a drive-in ceremony in Santa Ana, Calif., last month. The Trump administration plans to raise application fees by,
WASHINGTON — When Guadalupe Rubio, 41, contracted the coronavirus in July, she struggled to make the few steps to the bathroom in the mobile home that she shared with her teenage daughter in Kent, Wash.
The pandemic had already shuttered her small construction business, which also provided for her parents and three children in Sinaloa, Mexico. Now, the virus left her struggling to breathe, trapped inside without any means to support the six family members who depended on her.
Around the time the pandemic hit Washington State, Ms. Rubio became eligible to apply for United States citizenship. She made a bit too much money to qualify for a reduction in the application fee, currently $640, and the economic effects of the pandemic and her illness sapped away her savings. She applied for food stamps, a benefit that could also provide a break on the fee, but has so far been unable to reach the overwhelmed social services agency that could help her.
If she cannot save the money or obtain a fee waiver before the fall, Ms. Rubio’s prospects of becoming a citizen will become more remote. The Trump administration moved late last month to raise the cost of naturalization applications by more than 80 percent and to substantially tighten eligibility requirements for a subsidized application.
The price for naturalization will jump to $1,160 or $1,170 for online applications. The rule will also lower the income threshold to qualify for a fee waiver and eliminate the partial subsidy for the application.
Almost all other exceptions that allowed immigrants to waive the fee will be eliminated, including extenuating financial hardship and means-tested public benefits, like food stamps. Only some protected immigrants, including victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, will remain eligible.
Ms. Rubio is one of many who would no longer be eligible for a waiver. Immigration lawyers across the country are rushing to submit their clients’ applications to the already backlogged agency before the fee increases are introduced on Oct. 2.
“It’s a low blow during a pandemic,” Ms. Rubio said through a translator. “I have worked a lot for this country, and if I’m a citizen, I can — not just contribute more — but I can also better reap the benefits of all of my hard work in this country.”
Advocates for immigrants say the fee increase is intended to stymie legal immigration and deprive immigrants of their right to vote before the election in November.
“It’s the first-ever wealth test on citizenship,” said Melissa Rodgers, the director of programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. She called the new rule “the most dramatic change we’ve ever seen to the structure of the immigration system” and its fees.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose budget is nearly entirely funded by its fees, has fallen into a financial crisis under the Trump administration and become even more strapped for cash as the coronavirus pandemic has sharply reduced applications for visas and other services.
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, who oversees U.S.C.I.S., has said that increases are necessary to align the fees with the “true cost” of processing applications in an already overly extended system.
The agency has pleaded with Congress for a $1.2 billion emergency injection as part of a proposed coronavirus relief package that has become mired in a partisan standoff and seems unlikely to pass before next month, if it passes at all. Without the money, the agency plans to furlough nearly 70 percent of its staff on Aug. 30. If Congress appropriates the funds, U.S.C.I.S. has proposed an additional 10 percent surcharge for its services, in addition to the fee increases.
In a statement, Joseph Edlow, the agency’s deputy director for policy, said the immigration service was required by law to modify its fees based on routine analysis of its finances. These “overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans,” he said.
Immigration activists say that U.S.C.I.S.’s financial shortfalls are a result of mismanagement, including bloated staff and administrative inefficiencies that have discouraged new applicants.
Ms. Rodgers said the administration’s policies had “effectively bankrupted U.S.C.I.S.” The agency’s work force has burgeoned by 19 percent under the Trump administration, with many of those positions in fraud detection. Processes have slowed because of new interview requirements, and more applications have been rejected.
“This administration has no one to blame but themselves for driving an entire federal agency to the ground,” said Doug Rand, a former Obama administration official who worked on immigration policy. He questioned whether the new fees would solve the agency’s financial woes or simply reduce applications even further.
The Department of Homeland Security has stated that price changes would have little or no effect on the number of applicants.
Research has found otherwise. A study at Stanford University found that fee waivers granted to immigrants in New York doubled the likelihood that they would apply for naturalization. Duncan Lawrence, the executive director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab and an author of the study, called the new fees “a systemic wall for access to citizenship.”
Decades after she emigrated from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Maria Turrubiartes, 65, became a citizen this year, partly because she wanted to help her husband apply for permanent residency. However, the new rule will increase the fee for his application by 52 percent, to $960.
Ms. Turrubiartes, who has epilepsy, said her husband remained her primary caregiver. Between her disability checks and her husband’s salary, it will be difficult to afford the new cost, she said, speaking through a translator. While they save for the fee, Ms. Turrubiartes and her husband, a cement worker, can no longer afford to send money to his parents in Mexico.
For the time being, they will forego anything that is not a necessity. If you love someone, these are the kinds of sacrifices you have to make, she said.
Some activists say the fee hike is part of a long-running effort by the administration to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment. President Trump promised to restrict immigration early in his campaign in 2016, and he has already made the issue a centerpiece of his bid for re-election.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a policy last year that would deny applicants for permanent residency based on their use of public benefits, including food stamps or Medicaid. A federal appeals court blocked that rule in several states this month.
Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the new fees would disproportionately target immigrants from the poorest nations, such as those from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and South and Central America — largely immigrants of color.
“This administration has been slicing and dicing and finding different ways to make it hard for immigrants to be included in this country,” Ms. Hincapié said. “This is about Trump trying to restrict who is considered worthy of being an American, and time and time again, he has sent the message to immigrants, especially low-income immigrants, that if you are not from Norway, you are not wanted in our country.”
To Ms. Rubio, that message is apparent. For now, she remains at home recovering from the coronavirus, with lots of water, fruit and vitamins. Her headaches have subsided and her sense of smell has returned, but she is still without work. Ms. Rubio sighed as she described what the virus had done to her prospects of becoming a citizen. Like many others, she has no idea how she will find the money before October, when those prospects will dwindle even further.
Citizenship would change her life in many ways, Ms. Rubio said through a translator. It would enable her to save for her retirement, visit her family in Mexico for extended periods and bring her parents to the United States. She said she was hopeful that her parents would join her in Washington State some day after she became a citizen.
Among the main reasons for her desire to become a citizen, Ms. Rubio said, was that she wanted to have a say in the political process that had made obtaining her naturalization so difficult.
“First,” she said, “I’m going to vote.”
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The Green Card Process Through the Lens of a DMV Visit
As an immigration attorney, I try to provide clients with a basic, yet insightful, understanding of various aspects of a complex immigration system. It’s not always easy, but I often find analogies to something commonplace can be helpful. One analogy I’ve found to work well to explain the green card process beyond describing its mere,
As an immigration attorney, I try to provide clients with a basic, yet insightful, understanding of various aspects of a complex immigration system. It’s not always easy, but I often find analogies to something commonplace can be helpful. One analogy I’ve found to work well to explain the green card process beyond describing its mere sequence of form filings likens the process to a visit to a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office.
In my practice area of business immigration law, green card processes are mostly employment-based and involve the successive filing of a labor certification application, immigrant petition, and adjustment of status application (with the first not always required and the latter two sometimes eligible for concurrent filing). So I’ll refer to these types of filings in describing the analogy here. But variations of the analogy may be equally applicable to other types of green card processes, such as those in which the aspiring permanent resident will apply for an immigrant visa overseas rather than adjustment of status within the United States, as well as those based on family relationships and those available to asylees and refugees.
The trappings of a visit to the DMV, no matter the state, may be familiar to you: the issuance of a waiting number determining your place in a queue, followed by a long wait for your number to be called at one of several counters to file required paperwork, followed yet again by a lengthy wait for your paperwork to be processed, and eventually – hopefully – approved without issue. The counter at which you’ll be called, and the length of the corresponding queue (or maybe in some fortunate instances, the absence of one altogether), often depends on specific factors, such as the type of service you’re seeking.
Just as you’re issued a waiting number upon entry into a DMV office, aspiring permanent residents are issued a priority date when the first major filing in their green card process (either the labor certification application or immigrant petition) is submitted. The priority date is the date this first filing is submitted and determines, once the immigrant petition is approved, the aspiring permanent resident’s place in any existing queue to apply for adjustment of status.
Similar to how you wait at the DMV for your number to be called to file your paperwork at the appropriate counter, aspiring permanent residents face varying wait times for their priority date to be “called” at a designated “counter” to apply for adjustment of status. The “counter” in the green card process at which aspiring permanent residents must apply for adjustment of status is based on a combination of two main factors: their immigrant classification (which, when speaking with clients, I refer to as their “green card category”) and their country of chargeability (which I refer to as their country of birth). Aside from some significant exceptions outside of the employment-based green card process, the law limits the supply of green cards available each fiscal year. Because the law allocates this limited supply based on a combination of both immigrant classification and country of chargeability, queues form at “counters” where the demand for green cards exceeds the available supply. And the more severely demand exceeds supply, the longer the queue will be. This analogy helps to show why EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in India and China are often confronted with waits lasting many years for their priority date to be “called” at their designated counters, while EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in most other countries often face no such queue. In technical terms, the existence of a queue at a given “counter” means the availability of green cards associated with that counter’s classification and chargeability combination is “retrogressed.” If there’s no queue, green card availability at that counter is “current.”
A visit to the DMV often entails a wait of several hours sitting and keeping watch of your designated counter at it serves the visitors who arrived before you until your own number is finally called. Likewise, many aspiring permanent residents monitor the often plodding, month-to-month movement of “cut-off dates” in the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ monthly Visa Bulletins for the designated “counter” at which they must apply for adjustment of status. The Visa Bulletin for a given month contains various charts showing whether a queue for filing an adjustment of status application exists for any classification and chargeability combination, and if so, how long the queue is. Combinations for which there is no queue are assigned a “C” notation, indicating that green card availability is current and that the adjustment of status application can thus be filed at any time that month, including in concurrence with an immigrant petition if it has not already been approved, and assuming any prerequisite labor certification has been granted. Combinations for which there is a queue, and for which green card availability is thus retrogressed, are denoted by a “cut-off date,” with older dates reflecting longer queues. Aspiring permanent residents seeking to adjust status at a “counter” at which green card availability is retrogressed can track their place in the queue by comparing their priority date with the applicable cut-off date each month. Priority dates that fall before the applicable cut-off date in a given month are those that have been “called,” indicating that much like counters at which green card availability is current, an adjustment of status application can be filed at any time that month, including in concurrence with an immigrant petition if it has not already been approved, and assuming again that any prerequisite labor certification has been granted.
Like processing of paperwork filed at a counter at the DMV, processing of an adjustment of status application may take a long time. But eventually – hopefully – the application is approved without issue. And unlike a visit to the DMV, having qualified counsel during the green card process can make all the difference in one’s chance of success.
 For example, “immediate relatives” (spouses and children of US citizens, and parents of US citizens if the citizen is at least 21 years old) are exempt from annual numerical limits on green card availability. INA 201(b)(2)(A)(i).
 Aspiring permanent residents for whom the queue for applying for adjustment of status involves a wait of several years, such as EB-2 and EB-3 immigrants born in India and China, commonly change jobs or employers in the course of their wait. Such a change can require a restart of the green card process since employment-based green card processes are generally job and employer specific. But to allow aspiring permanents residents who change jobs or employers to keep their place in queue, the law permits them to retain their priority date under certain conditions if they are the beneficiary of a previously approved EB-1, EB-2, or EB-3 immigrant petition, and likewise become the beneficiary of an approved EB-1, EB-2, or EB-3 immigrant petition based on their new job or employer. 8 CFR 204.5(e).
 US Citizenship and Immigration Service also publishes monthly updates indicating whether to use the Visa Bulletin’s Dates for Filing charts or its Final Action Dates charts, to determine whether an adjustment of status application may be filed.
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