The fees for applying for U.S. citizenship and other immigration benefits were set to skyrocket on Friday, but a federal judge has temporarily blocked the Trump administration from implementing the big hikes.

Critics called the fee hikes an attempt to reduce legal immigration. But the judge’s ruling blocking the fee hikes will leave U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes immigration benefits, underfunded by millions of dollars per business day, an official said.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White issued a preliminary injunction late Tuesday after finding that Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who the Senate never confirmed, likely had been unlawfully appointed and therefore didn’t have the authority to issue a new rule hiking immigration fees.

USCIS is facing a huge budget shortfall. The agency had sought across-the-board fees increases that would have raised fees on average 20% overall. The new changes also would have eliminated most fee waivers that in the past have made it more affordable for lower-income immigrants to apply for green cards or citizenship.

The fee increases and elimination of fee waivers were expected to generate about $1 billion in additional revenue annually for the cash-strapped agency, Unlike other federal agencies, USCIS is funded almost entirely by fees the agency charges immigrants applying for citizenship and other benefits, instead of tax dollars.

The fee to apply for citizenship was scheduled to jump from the current price of $640 to $1,170, or $1,060 if filed online, which amounts to a more than 80% increase, and the second highest naturalization fee increase in history, analysts said.

People fleeing persecution in their home countries would have had to pay a $50 fee to apply for asylum if they are not in deportation proceedings. There currently is no cost to apply for asylum.

“It’s very, very welcome news,” said Carl Bergquist, policy counsel at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, one of several immigrant rights groups that filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the fee increases.

The federal judge agreed with immigrant groups that the Trump administration had not provided sufficient justification for such large fee increases and that the government had not adequately taken into account the impact the significant fee increases would have had on immigrants as well as nonprofit groups that provide assistance to people applying for immigration benefits.

“The government claimed it needed lots more money, so they wanted to raise the fees a lot,” Bergquistsaid. “And the reason we filed the lawsuit is because they raised the fees so much that they would price … (immigrants) out of citizenship, they would price them out of family unification and they would deny folks the chance to apply for asylum.”


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It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will appeal the ruling.

Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director, said the “unfortunate” ruling will leave the agency underfunded by “millions of each business day the fee rule is enjoined.”

“As required by federal law, USCIS conducted a comprehensive biennial fee review and determined that current fees do not recover the cost of providing adjudication and naturalization services,” Edlow said in a written statement. “This is nothing new or abnormal. In fact, the fee rule is two years behind schedule, and is a smaller percentage increase than the previous. In a fee-funded agency such as USCIS, this increase is necessary to continue operations in any long-term, meaningful way to ensure cost recovery.

“This decision barring USCIS from enacting its mandatory fee increase is unprecedented and harmful to the American people.”

USCIS officials have said in the past that the agency is facing a billion-dollar shortfall and the fee increases are needed to offset the higher cost of processing applications for immigration benefits, including the Trump administration’s attempt to crack down on fraud and increase the vetting of immigrants applying for benefits.

The budget shortfall was exacerbated when USCIS temporarily closed its offices for several months earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

USCIS had planned to furlough about two-thirds of its workers starting Aug. 30, a move that would have incapacitated the agency. But the agency averted the furloughs at the last minute through cost-cutting measures officials warned will lead to even longer times to process applications for immigration benefits.

Jessica Vaughan, a supporter of the fee increase, blasted the judge’s ruling as “another egregious case of a lower court judge overstepping his authority.” She is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors reductions in immigration.

“In recent years the agency has been swamped with asylum applications resulting from big influx of arrivals at the southern border. But those applicants have not had to pay application fees in the past, and as a result other legal immigrants and their sponsors have been subsidizing them,” Vaughan said in an email.

The huge “free-application” workload caught up with USCIS this year, and the agency nearly ran out of money, she said. 

She called the $50 fee USCIS planned to implement for asylum applications “modest” considering the actual cost to process them is about $370, she said. Young, undocumented immigrants applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program pay application fees that are about half the actual cost of processing, she added. 

She predicted USCIS will be hampered in doing its job because of the judge’s injunction and, as a result, thousands of applicants likely will be further delayed in having their applications processed, including new citizenship applicants, Americans sponsoring family members, and employers sponsoring workers. The agency may have to implement furloughs after all, she said.


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“It’s ironic that an immigrant advocacy group filed this lawsuit and convinced a federal judge to issue an order that will cripple the agency that approves new immigrants. They are shooting themselves in the foot, figuratively,” Vaughan said.

On Thursday, however, President Donald Trump signed a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded through Dec. 11, and includes a provision that allows USCIS to increase revenue by adding “premium” charges to expedite processing for certain categories of employment-based visas. 

“The inclusion of expanded premium processing in the Senate’s continuing resolution is a welcome means of allowing USCIS to get additional funding,”  Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, an immigrant advocacy group, said in a written statement. “However, the agency’s claims that it’s going bankrupt and needs to furlough most of its workers were always disingenuous, less about its solvency, and more about carrying out the extremist Trump administration plan of shutting down USCIS operations and excluding anyone who isn’t white and wealthy.”

For now, immigration fees will remain the same, and will not go up as scheduled on Friday, said Shev Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, the government relations director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

There has been a rush of immigrants applying for citizenship and other immigration benefits before the fee increases were to go into effect.

“It’s a huge relief for many immigrants who are in the process of filing. I know many of our attorneys were busy trying to get everybody filed before the Oct. 2 deadline,” Dalal-Dheini said. “It’s really welcome news for many immigrants and foreign nationals in this country who are really trying to do what they can to maintain or get into lawful status.”

The fee for applying for a permanent resident visa or green card — known as adjustment of status — is $1,225, which includes the cost of the adjustment application itself, plus work authorization documents and advanced parole. Under the fee hikes that were supposed to happen Friday, the “bundled” fee would have been eliminated, essentially raising the cost of applying for adjustment of status to $2,270, or almost twice as much.

“It’s become very cost prohibitive for people who would have had to pay those fees,” Dalal-Dheini said. “What essentially it was doing was pricing out people from the legal immigration system and making it affordable only to those who are wealthy.”

Even though the fee increases won’t take effect as scheduled, there is still a “high level of urgency” for immigrants to apply for citizenship and other immigration benefits in case the federal government files a successful appeal and the fee hikes take effect in the future, said Xiao Wang, the CEO of Boundless Immigration, an advocacy group.

Wang noted that recently USCIS inexplicably advanced the visa bulletin date for immigrants waiting to apply for employment-based green cards by five years, a move that will primarily benefit Indians and Chinese workers stuck in backlogs because of limits on the number of green cards allocated annually by country.

The sudden change in October’s visa bulletin seemed timed to coincide with the scheduled fee hike to apply for immigration benefits to increase revenue from a flood of Indian and Chinese workers suddenly eligible to apply for green cards, Wang said.

But now that the fee hike won’t take effect as scheduled, USCIS stands to lose out on that additional revenue it won’t be able to make up, Wang said.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

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