- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A proposed naturalization fee increase has temporarily united some advocates on both sides of the immigration debate — but for different reasons.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has proposed raising the application fee for becoming a U.S. citizen from $330 to $595 in order to meet the growing demand for services.

USCIS, an agency of the Homeland Security Department, receives no public funding and operates entirely on user fees, spokesman Chris Bentley said.

“Because we are a fee-funded agency, we very much have to run as a business,” Mr. Bentley said. “What it costs us to process applications and petitions is what we need to recoup.”

The Arlington County Board adopted a resolution last week opposing the fee increase as an insurmountable obstacle to U.S. citizenship for some immigrant families.

“We do not buy that argument,” board Vice Chairman Walter Tejada said yesterday. “We think there are other ways for the funds to be gathered. This is really about pricing the American dream out of the range of people who have earned it.”

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials decried the fee increase as a step away from the nation’s tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants.

“The USCIS’ proposed fee increase … sends newcomers the wrong message at a time when they are seeking to embrace U.S. citizenship,” the association said in a February statement. “Immigrants who apply for naturalization are eager to demonstrate their commitment to this country by becoming full participants in our nation’s civic life. If they cannot become U.S. citizens because of an unfair fee hike, we may all lose an opportunity to strengthen and revitalize our democracy.”

The Los Angeles-based organization has called on Congress to appropriate funds for the immigration agency’s operational costs.

The agency received funding from Congress last year to eliminate its backlog and reduce the application-processing period to an average of six months. The backlog, defined as cases that take more than six months to process, was reduced from 3.4 million to about 70,000, Mr. Bentley said.

“The new fee structure will allow us to continue that momentum,” he said. “The alternative to not having the proper amount of fees is that we have inadequately trained staff, poorly run facilities — facilities that are dilapidated and out of date. When we don’t have the resources on hand … backlogs grow and processing times increase.”

USCIS periodically has adjusted naturalization application fees for inflation — most recently in October 2005 and February 2002 — but its last comprehensive fee adjustment was in 1998, when it was increased from $95 to $225.

The new increase, proposed in January, could take effect by the end of the month. The change is the result of the agency’s “taking a comprehensive look at what we do, what it costs us to provide those services and making sure that those receiving services pay for it,” Mr. Bentley said.

While steep fees will not have a direct effect on the nation’s estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens, pricey applications will prevent many of the 8.5 million legal permanent residents who are eligible for naturalization from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Only legal permanent residents who are at least 18 years old and who have lived in the United States for five consecutive years are eligible to apply for citizenship.

“If we have legal immigrants here, should it be our goal to dissuade them from becoming citizens? I’d have to say no,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies. “If you don’t want immigrants to become citizens, then don’t let them in.”

The center is a nonpartisan research organization that seeks to reduce the number of immigrants entering the United States in order to improve the lifestyles of those who are admitted.

Mr. Krikorian, who opposes a fee increase, said immigrants should shoulder some service costs — such as those associated with processing applications — but not the entire immigration agency.

“I’m not against an application fee for immigration,” he said. “The problem is Congress refuses to appropriate any money at all to USCIS so all of their money comes from user fees. The immigration service needs funds from Congress in order to update its computer systems and other infrastructure projects. You can’t fund infrastructure projects just out of user fees.”

Mr. Krikorian said Congress wants to open its borders to immigrants but does not want to pay the price.

“Congress has decided it wants mass immigration, and if you’re going to run a mass-immigration system, you’re going to have to pay for some of it,” he said.

Other low-immigration advocacy groups say the fees are justified.

“These are user fees and the people who use the service should foot the bill,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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