President Bush says a primary goal of immigration reform is to bring millions of illegal aliens "out of the shadows" and provide a path to legal residency and eventual U.S. citizenship. But while the president champions such reform, the United States is set to implement the largest-ever boost in fees charged to those applying for residency and citizenship. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, advocates for immigrants say the administration is sending mixed messages to an often fearful and vulnerable community.
For newcomers, both legal and undocumented, the cost of pursuing the American dream is about to go up. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is doubling, and in some cases tripling, its fees. Beginning July 30, the charge for adults seeking residency will exceed $1,000; the fee for citizenship will be nearly $600.
Some say the higher fees undermine President Bush's stated goals on immigration.
"To come up with $1,000 per family member to obtain permanent residence - it is going to keep a lot of people in the shadows for a very long time," says Crystal Williams, a deputy director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Williams says the new fees constitute an enormous financial hurdle that will force countless poorer immigrants to delay applications - and may lead some to give up entirely.
But officials at the Citizenship and Immigration Service point out that the agency receives no federal funds to process applications. Costs are covered entirely by fees charged. They say unless those fees reflect actual costs, services would have to be cut back and waiting times for applicants would increase.
"We realize that anytime we increase the fees that there is a burden there," says USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley. "There is pain that is caused along the way. However, to be able to remain a world class service provider, to be able to get the services and benefits in a timely manner to the people who deserve them, we simply need the resources to be able to make that happen."
Bentley adds that refugees and asylum-seekers will remain exempt from charge, and some fees can be reduced for residency and citizenship applicants facing dire economic hardship.
But if USCIS is constrained by its dependence on fees for operating costs, then it is time to change the system, according to Donald Kerwin of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
"Citizenship is a national good. It is important for our country. And so we think that to fix the system, to reduce backlogs and improve technology, there needs to be appropriated monies [federal funds] for this. It needs to go beyond the fee-based system," he said.
Some in Congress counter that it would be wrong to shift the financial burden to U.S. taxpayers. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa says the new fees are still far lower than what illegal immigrants typically pay smugglers to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We are seeing coyote [smuggler] fees go up to $1,500 to $2,500 per person," he said. "I do not see any fees levied by USCIS that were that high. So if it is cheaper to have access to becoming a citizen than it is to be transported [illegally] to the United States, then, no, I do not think those fees are too high by comparison."
Immigration officials also defend the fee system, saying it provides spending flexibility, since revenues go up in proportion to any rise in applications. They say previous fee hikes have not resulted in drastic reductions in applications for residency or citizenship.
Immigrant advocates counter that the current fee hike is far greater than any previous increase. They also note studies showing the percentage of eligible immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship dropping in recent decades. Opinions vary as to the cause, but immigrant advocates say making it more expensive for immigrants to pursue legal status or citizenship can only serve as a further deterrent.