- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The immigration service yesterday proposed big increases in the fees to apply for immigrant and work visas and for naturalized citizenship, but some lawmakers said it is time for taxpayers to foot part of the bill to ease the cost on potential immigrants.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of the few fee-based agencies in the government, said the current rates don’t cover the cost of doing business. It also said the increases will pay for more employees and equipment, reducing wait times.

Director Emilio Gonzalez said immigrants will “see the difference” in service.

“I need these fees to give us the agency that these immigrant communities expect,” he said. “They don’t want long waits, they don’t want to go into dingy buildings, they don’t want to meet with rude employees, they don’t want to do a lot of things which they are going through now, because we haven’t had the resources to make a difference.”

But the proposed increases were so steep that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary immigration, border security and citizenship subcommittee, said it’s time to look at spending taxpayer money to help immigrants.

“This drastic increase will price the American dream out of reach for qualified immigrants wanting to be citizens of our country,” he said. “We are a nation of immigrants, and Congress should recognize its responsibility to support the vital work of immigration services by appropriating the necessary funds.”

That would be a major change for the agency, which funds 99 percent of its operations through fees.

Under the changes, applying for naturalized citizenship would cost $595, up from $330, and the cost for processing fingerprints and other biometric information would increase $10, to $80. The cost of some complicated applications would jump by more than $1,000.

On the other side of the ledger, Mr. Gonzalez has proposed eliminating the fee for applying for a visa as a victim of human trafficking.

The fees would go into effect in about six months, after a public-comment period that begins today. The fees would add $1 billion to the agency’s $2 billion annual budget.

Overall, the agency expects to receive about 5 million applications a year.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association said the cost of applying for citizenship has increased fourfold since 1994, when it was $95.

“Funding an entire agency on the backs of immigrants and their U.S. citizen spouses is beyond the pale,” said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, the group’s president.

She said she doubts immigrants will get superior services because of the increases, and she echoed Mr. Kennedy’s call for Congress to begin footing some of the bill.

Mr. Gonzalez said the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, has deemed the fee increases necessary. He is in the middle of upgrading his agency’s technology infrastructure and said the new funds are critical.

The director said the agency also is proposing new rules to do away with inconsistencies, such as when someone can apply for a waiver of fees even though his or her company should be able to pay, and when family-based visa applicants are allowed to apply for waivers even though their families are supposed to certify they can support the applicants.

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