Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Democrats yesterday said the fee increases for naturalized citizenship and visas proposed by the Bush administration amount to a “citizenship tax” and vowed to fight it, saying taxpayers should pick up the bill for many immigrants.

Some Democrats also proposed a means-tested type of system, where those with higher incomes would pay more for citizenship or other benefits.

“Many in the immigrant community see the increase for what it is — increasing the cost of the American dream, telling those least fortunate among us they probably need not apply,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.

He and fellow Democrats said the fee increases, proposed last month by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will hurt poor immigrants and could force some of them to try coming to the country illegally.

“Don’t you provide them an incentive to do an end-around and come here illegally?” Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat, told USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez during a hearing held by the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee on the proposed increases.

But Democrats’ options are limited. The proposed increases are in the form of an administration regulation, which means once they are tweaked and finalized by the agency some time this summer they will take effect unless both houses of Congress pass a measure blocking it.

The debate goes to the heart of the nation’s legal immigration system.

USCIS’ budget comes mostly from fees paid by those seeking a visa or citizenship, though Congress has appropriated some money to help with specific projects. Democrats, though, say it’s time to consider changing that and having Congress spend money to cover general operations.

Mr. Gonzalez rejected that, saying a fixed appropriation would tie his hands while collecting fees allows him to be flexible — if more people apply, he gets more fees.

He said immigrants will see almost immediate improvements in services with the higher fees, while without them the agency will return to the days with application backlogs in the millions.

“We’re simply not going to be able to keep up with our workload,” said Mr. Gonzalez, adding that would hurt the agency’s core mission. “We’re going to be suffering from a national security perspective.”

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.

Republicans generally seemed to support the increases, saying citizenship or the chance to work in America is worth it.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, called citizenship “one of the greatest values in the world,” and Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, said those who are applying should be the ones who pay.

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe one of the marks of responsibility is people pay for what they get,” Mr. Lungren said.

Mr. Conyers told Mr. Gonzalez he is not likely to see any money from Congress this year because there are so many needs competing for limited dollars.

But Republicans said Mr. Conyers showed a misunderstanding of the process because USCIS isn’t seeking a large congressional appropriation this year. In fact, Mr. Lungren said, Mr. Conyers’ argument about competing federal needs makes the argument for why USCIS needs fee increases.

Democrats were also concerned about the effect on poorer applicants, and proposed to keep down the costs on them by charging high-income applicants much larger fees.

Rep. Bill Delahunt put forward the case of a hypothetical wealthy German businessman making $2 million a year.

“I don’t mind whacking him,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Mr. Gonzalez said USCIS already allows a waiver for applicants making less then 125 percent of the poverty level. He said 85 percent of those who apply are granted one.

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