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U.S. seeks to reduce waivers for immigration fees

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is proposing changing the eligibility for fee waivers for lower-income immigrants on the path to legal permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.

Immigration advocates say the move is like building an "invisible wall."

USCIS announced the change Friday in the Federal Register. Receiving means-tested public benefits from the states would no longer result in automatic USCIS fee waivers, the proposal states. Instead, fee waivers would only be tied to two criteria: the federal poverty threshold or particular financial hardships.

The change is necessary, USCIS said, because "eligibility for these benefits can vary from state to state, depending on the state's income level guidelines," meaning that "individuals who would not otherwise qualify under the poverty-guideline threshold and financial hardship criteria have been granted fee waivers."

In 2017, USCIS approved 285,009 fee waiver applications, totaling $173 million.

The new proposal restricts waivers only to applicants who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold or financial hardship.

"It's a significant narrowing of those who would be eligible for the fee waiver. Our estimates indicate that this would reduce the total population of those eligible for a fee waiver by two-thirds," said Jill Marie Bussey, advocacy director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. "It's an extremely troubling proposal for our network."

CLINIC's 330 affiliates provide pro bono immigration services to thousands of low-income immigrants across the United States. Bussey said 95 percent of CLINIC's affiliates assist with fee waiver applications.

In California, where 20 percent of the population is foreign born, the federal poverty threshold to claim state benefits is 200 percent.

For 2018, a four-person family in California is eligible for means-tested state benefits with a household income at or below $50,200. Thus, an immigrant household at that income level and receiving state means-tested benefits are currently eligible for a USCIS fee waiver.

But with the proposed change, that same four-person Californian household would only be eligible for the USCIS fee waiver if household income was at or below $37,650.

USCIS is like the U.S. Postal Service in that most of its funding comes from fees paid for its services, rather than from U.S. taxpayers.

USCIS fees for immigrants to use its services can run into the thousands. The application for a "green card", formally known as the "application to register permanent residence," costs $1,140. The application for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen costs $640.

The waiver proposal is an attempt to reverse a change to immigration policy under President Barack Obama. In 2011, USCIS standardized a process of using means-tested benefits as a way to prove eligibility for its fee waivers.

"When this agency waives fees, it's hurtful to the quality of the agency and it pushes fees off from one population to another. If you can't get fees from group A, then you have to run up the fees for groups B, C, and D. So there is a reason to be careful with waivers," said David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank advocating for low immigration.

"The change works against and secures some fee money from the near poor while leaving the poor untouched. So this is not a program that rolls back benefits for the really poor people, it rolls back benefits for some of the working poor and the income level above that," North said.

CLINIC's Bussey said the proposal is like an "invisible wall," "a back-door way of limiting family immigration and reunification." She fears it will suppress naturalization rates

"And that hurts us all. Studies really show that low-income immigrants are able to improve their financial status through naturalization. They have access to better jobs, educational opportunities and resources," she said. "So limiting access to naturalization through limiting this fee waiver creates a poverty loop."

North said the fees make sense because U.S. legal status brings "admission to the labor market, for instance, where you can make as much money as you want or can."

The proposed change is open for comment until Nov. 27. Public comments have to be taken into consideration when finalizing a federal government rule change but may not necessarily be incorporated into its outcome.
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