December 30, 2019

Harris Leads Colleagues in Letter Opposing Drastic Increases to Immigration-Related Fees

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) led a group of her colleagues in sending a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official Samantha Deshommes expressing their strong opposition to a rule change that would drastically increase immigration fees and directly harm vulnerable immigrant populations.

Under the proposed rule change, the filing fee for individuals seeking naturalization would increase 83%, from $640 to $1,170. The renewal fee for DACA recipients would increase by 55%, from $495 to $765. The new rule would also establish a new fee for asylum seekers and increase fees for those seeking Temporary Protected Status. Finally, the rule would limit the availability of fee waivers across the board. 

“USCIS’s efforts to limit the availability of fee waivers while increasing fees to, among other things, naturalize, seek asylum, or remain in the only country they know to be home, are a clear and concerted effort to harm low-income individuals, vulnerable populations, and communities of color,” wrote the senators. “Immigration is essential to American society and the American economy. The proposed changes are contrary to what we stand for as a nation.”

The senators continued, “We are a nation of immigrants. For centuries, immigrants have enriched our communities, strengthened our economy, and made our country a better place. We are deeply concerned by the myriad ways in which the proposed rulemaking subverts congressional intent to pursue the administration’s unabashed and poorly-disguised anti-immigrant agenda.”

In addition to Harris, the letter was signed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). 

The full text of the letter is available here or below: 

December 26, 2019

Samantha Deshommes, Chief

Regulatory Coordination Division

Office of Policy and Strategy

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Department of Homeland Security

20 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Mailstop #2140

Washington, D.C. 20529-2140

RE:     Comment Letter for USCIS Proposed Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements: DHS Docket USCIS-2019-0010; RIN 1615-AC18

Dear Ms. Deshommes:

We write to express serious concerns regarding the proposed rulemaking published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on November 14, 2019.  Several of its provisions increasing fees and making related regulatory changes would have a significant, adverse impact on vulnerable immigrant populations.  Alarmingly, the rulemaking seeks to circumvent clear and established congressional intent and long-established principles underlying the U.S. immigration system.  As members of the Senate committee of jurisdiction over immigration policy, we strongly object to several key provisions contained in the proposed rulemaking.

I. USCIS is Seeking to Overstep Congressional Authority.

The rulemaking proposes to transfer funds to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an apparent effort to go beyond USCIS’s statutory authority and circumvent Congress’s fundamental power of the purse.  Congress, through the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), established the Immigration Examinations Fee Account (IEFA) for “expenses in providing immigration adjudication and naturalization services.”  The INA clearly specifies that IEFA funds are “for expenses in providing immigration adjudication and naturalization services and the collection, safeguarding and accounting for fees deposited in and funds reimbursed from the ‘Immigration Examinations Fee Account.’”  Critically, USCIS is not authorized to conduct immigration enforcement and border security activities, which are handled by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) respectively.  USCIS is charged with “exclusively focusing on the administration of benefit applications.” Accordingly, and as set forth in the relevant statutory language, IEFA funds are intended to support USCIS’s mission to adjudicate immigration benefit requests.

Despite the statutory language specifying that IEFA is for “providing immigration adjudication and naturalization services,” (emphasis added) USCIS seeks to transfer over $112 million to ICE. In a threadbare attempt to shoehorn the proposed transfer into the requisite statutory language, USCIS states that such costs are authorized “to the extent that such positions and costs support immigration adjudication and naturalization services.”  Nonetheless, USCIS confesses within the same section that the money is intended to support efforts that go “beyond the moment of adjudication” and then details a series of ICE activities, including investigations and removal efforts that fall squarely within the ambit of enforcement, not adjudication.  Indeed, the initial rulemaking underscores that the true purpose of the transferred funds is for enforcement, not adjudication, by citing to the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 and 2020 budget requests for a transfer from IEFA to ICE “to support immigration investigation and enforcement and “immigration investigation and enforcement consistent with the Administration’s Executive Orders” (emphases added).  The stated purpose for the proposed transfer of funds is a far cry from “providing immigration adjudication and naturalizations” (emphasis added). In light of the foregoing, USCIS’s justification that these funds will “support immigration adjudication and naturalization services” simply strains credulity.

USCIS’s attempt to accept payments from applicants for adjudication of their immigration benefits and redirect those funds for immigration enforcement is improper and contravenes congressional intent.  First, it subverts the statutorily specified purpose of the IEFA.  Second, it is contrary to the mission and role USCIS was established to serve.

II. USCIS’s Proposed Revisions Will Disadvantage Vulnerable Communities.

We are also deeply concerned that USCIS’s proposed changes to the fee schedule appear designed to disadvantage vulnerable communities.  USCIS’s proposed efforts to severely limit the availability of fee waivers and impose additional fees that have not previously been charged will undoubtedly impact the ability of countless immigrant families to participate in the communities they consider to be their homes.  Conditioning such critical benefits on the ability to pay increased fees is contrary to the principle of equal access that is a central tenet of American democracy.

First, the rule proposes “to limit fee waivers to immigration benefit requests for which USCIS is required by law to consider a fee waiver or where the USCIS Director exercises favorable discretion as provided in the proposed regulation,” among other proposed limitations.  Fee waivers help applicants improve their stability, financially support themselves and their families, fully integrate into their communities, and eventually acquire citizenship.  As such, fee waivers have the power to lift up and transform families, communities, and the country as a whole.  As set forth in House Report accompanying the 2019 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, “USCIS is expected to continue the use of fee waivers for applicants who can demonstrate an inability to pay the naturalization fee.”  USCIS’s proposed limitation of fee waivers will cause considerable harm to families that contribute to their communities every day.  Moreover, this proposal could make essential benefits such as naturalization, adjustment of status, and employment authorization functionally inaccessible for low-income immigrants.  

Second, the proposed rulemaking includes a dramatic 83 percent increase to the filing fee for individuals seeking naturalization—from $640 to $1,170.  Such a substantial increase will make naturalization unavailable to low-income individuals.  In turn, without the opportunity to naturalize, such individuals will be unable to access significant benefits of citizenship that permit them to participate in their communities, thereby adversely impacting their U.S. citizen family members.  The deleterious effect of this fee increase is compounded by USCIS’s proposed elimination of the fee waiver for naturalization applications.   USCIS must keep the pathway to citizenship affordable and accessible to ensure that individuals who contribute to their communities every day and are American in every way may access the benefits for which they qualify under our laws.

Third, the proposed rulemaking establishes a new fee for asylum seekers—individuals fleeing persecution to seek refuge here in the United States.  In doing so, USCIS seeks to join only three other countries in the world that charge a fee before considering the protection of asylum seekers:  Iran, Fiji, and Australia. In addition, the proposed rulemaking would increase the fee for asylum seekers to apply for employment authorization at the same time that USCIS has separately proposed to extend the waiting period before asylum applicants can even request employment authorization.  The proposal would also impose fee increases for applicants for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), who were admitted to the United States after natural disasters or civil wars in countries such as Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador.  The world is facing the most significant displacement and refugee crisis in modern history.  Asylum seekers represent some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals.  Many of them flee with little more than the clothes on their backs and pennies to their names seeking the most basic notions of safety and security for themselves and their families.  Closing our doors to these individuals based on their inability to pay flies in the face of the basic intent of U.S. refugee law and policy and the United States’ historic role as the world’s humanitarian leader.  

Fourth, the proposed rulemaking includes an increased fee for renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) from $495 to $765—a 55 percent increase.  DACA recipients, whose status has already been placed in jeopardy by the Trump administration’s cruel decision to terminate their protections, are students, teachers in our communities, military service members, doctors, and other individuals who enrich our society and contribute to our economy.  Imposing a higher fee on these young people hampers their abilities to fully participate in the only communities they know to be their homes.

At bottom, USCIS’s efforts to limit the availability of fee waivers while increasing fees to, among other things, naturalize, seek asylum, or remain in the only country they know to be home, are a clear and concerted effort to harm low-income individuals, vulnerable populations, and communities of color.  Immigration is essential to American society and the American economy.  The proposed changes are contrary to what we stand for as a nation.

III. USCIS Has Severely Limited Opportunity for Public Comment.

Given the vast and predictably adverse consequences of the proposed rulemaking, USCIS’s decision to break with the standard 60-day public comment period was deeply troubling.  Executive Order 12866, which governs the regulatory planning and review process, states that agencies should allow “not less than 60 days” for public comment in most cases to “afford the public a meaningful opportunity to comment on any proposed regulation.”  The decision to provide less than 60 days is all the more alarming in light of the greater length of the proposed rulemaking as compared to the most recent preceding USCIS fee rules, its complexity, the significant public attention it has received, and multiple requests for extensions that have been submitted to OIRA and USCIS—including from members of Congress.  To date, DHS has provided a single extension to December 30, 2019.  This is simply insufficient to furnish an opportunity for thorough review and public comment. 

***

USCIS’s mission statement once averred, “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants . . . .”  This administration removed that statement and the proposed rulemaking supplies the latest evidence as to why.  This administration’s policies have systematically targeted immigrants and communities of color by cruelly separating children from their families, restricting access to immigration benefits, banning immigrants from the United Sates because of their Muslim faith, and closing our doors to vulnerable individuals seeking safety in the United States.  The proposed rulemaking disproportionately increases fees and eliminates fee waivers for the benefit categories most commonly used by low-income immigrants and makes critical benefits to vulnerable individuals essentially inaccessible.  

We are a nation of immigrants.  For centuries, immigrants have enriched our communities, strengthened our economy, and made our country a better place.  We are deeply concerned by the myriad ways in which the proposed rulemaking subverts congressional intent to pursue the administration’s unabashed and poorly-disguised anti-immigrant agenda.  

Sincerely,

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