A proposal by the Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services would increase filing fees for more than two dozen forms that are part of the US naturalized citizenship process. Legal immigrants seeking citizenship and many immigration attorneys say the fee hike is an unfair burden on people who are following the rules. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Houston.
Several dozen protesters gathered outside Houston's main federal building Thursday to condemn the proposed immigration fee increases. Among them was community activist Richard Leal of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
"We should be making it easier for qualified immigrants to become Americans, not harder," said Richard Leal. "The people paying the fees have played by the rules and have taken all the proper steps needed to become lawful US citizens."
People seeking legal residency, which is a necessary step on the path to citizenship, would see fees increase from $350 to a total cost of up to $645. The fees for actual citizenship will go up 66 percent.
Immigration attorneys say the fee increases put a heavy burden on immigrants who often do not earn much money and who seek citizenship partly as a way of improving their economic situation. Some attorneys allege that funds from the fee increase will be used to offset the cost of Homeland Security's efforts to deal with illegal immigration.
An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now reside in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in major US cities last year demanding an amnesty for these illegal residents. Critics of the amnesty say it would allow them to circumvent much of the process that legal immigrants must follow.
But Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, speaking to VOA by telephone from his Washington office, says it is only right that the resident aliens should pay for the services they use rather than all US taxpayers.
"Absolutely, we think that the users of the service ought to pay for it," said Jack Martin. "That is not, however, an excuse for inefficiency driving up the costs of these services and I think Congress should look at that closely to make sure that the services are being provided in as efficient a way as possible."
Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Emilio Gonzalez says the new fees will help modernize the system and make it more efficient. Almost the entire budget of the agency comes from fees collected from customers.
The last comprehensive fee increase was in 1998, but the agency did implement smaller fee hikes in 2004 and 2005. Last year, more than 730,000 immigrants applied for US citizenship and nearly half a million applied for legal permanent residency.