Looming Fee Increase Could Thwart Many U.S. Citizenship Applications

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.

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Updated 2020-08-16T12:02:59.293Z

“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.”

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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.

ImagePresident Trump in a taped speech during a citizenship ceremony in Miami last year. He has made immigration a centerpiece of his bid for re-election.
Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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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