The Financial Barriers to Legal Immigration

By Matthew Soerens 10-02-2009

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is considering raising its fees in order to resolve a $118 million budget shortfall. As fewer people are applying for citizenship and other immigration benefits, the agency says that it has no choice but to consider a price increase.

Most native-born U.S. citizens have no idea of the costs involved in immigration, which have risen dramatically in the past decade. In 1998, the governmental fee to apply for naturalization was $95. Less than a decade later, the cost had risen to $675! The price for Lawful Permanent Residency rose similarly, such that the fees for a U.S. citizen parent to obtain green cards for his wife and two children could easily run beyond $4,000, not including the costs of mandatory medical exams and attorney fees, which could be several thousand dollars more.

The reason for these governmental fees, ostensibly, is to cover the expense of operating the bureaucracy that adjudicates applications. In raising the fees, though, the USCIS seems to have missed a fundamental economic concept: when you raise the price, the number of buyers will decrease. From January to June 2008, 59% fewer naturalization applications were filed than in the same six-month period in 2007, when the fees were dramatically lower. This creates a budget problem because, unlike almost any other governmental agency, the USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees: Congress has decided that the agency should not receive any tax revenue. It also creates a societal problem, as fewer immigrants integrate into our society as naturalized citizens. While immigrant integration -- like public education or public health -- provides a societal benefit, our legislators do not see fit to expend public resources toward the effort.

Instead, we have what amounts to a retrogressive tax. Unlike our federal income tax system, which taxes the wealthy at a progressively higher rate than the poor, immigration fees end up placing enormous burdens on some of the poorest members of our society. According to data from the last U.S. census, 24.8% of non-citizen families with children under the age of 18 live below the poverty level, compared to 12.5% of native-born families with kids.

In my work as an immigration counselor, I regularly encounter families who are eligible to apply for an immigration benefit, but who cannot afford to do so. While we've worked with a local bank to help these folks secure loans for the immigration fees -- a better, less-usurious option than the "pay-day loan" store down the street -- filing for an immigration benefit can still bury a low-income family in debt.

With fees already putting immigration benefits out of reach of many immigrants, the USCIS is now considering further increases. Ironically, these fees are set by a federal agency that ultimately reports to President Obama. When the Bush administration proposed the last fee increases, then-Senator Obama introduced legislation to freeze USCIS fees. That bill never passed -- but now, as president, Mr. Obama has the authority to ensure that fees are not further increased. In fact, he could lower them back to a reasonable level, and ask Congress to appropriate the relatively small amount of funds that would be necessary to keep the USCIS operational.

The Hebrew scriptures repeat many times the divine mandate that we not oppress the alien or the poor. The prophet Malachi says that those who do will be grouped with sorcerers and adulterers for judgment (Malachi 3:5). We are also commanded to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute" (Proverbs 31:8). While the State Department can still provide a passport for $100 to voting U.S. citizens, non-citizens must spend about fourteen times that for their green cards. Those of us who have a voting voice in this democracy need to let President Obama and his Administration know that immigration fees need to go down, not up.

Matthew Soerens is a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited Immigration Counselor and a Church Engagement Representative at World Relief DuPage in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

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