- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The immigration service yesterday announced new fees boosting the cost of citizenship and green cards by hundreds of dollars, with agency leaders promising a streamlined, better-working and security-conscious agency in return.

Unless Congress votes to block them, the higher fees go into effect July 30 — giving congressional opponents two months to decide whether to take the unusual step of overturning regulations.

“We need the money,” said Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that processes legal immigrants and judges applications for citizenship. “This agency is fee-based, 99 percent of our budget comes from user fees. We need to modernize; we need to be the agency people expect us to be.”

Mr. Gonzalez said the new fees have nothing to do with the current immigration debate in Congress, but the increases, and USCIS’ ability to handle its existing workload, are bound to become a part of the discussion.

The Senate is considering a bill that would add millions of new applications to the 6 million the agency already handles each year, and comes just as USCIS has dug itself out of a giant backlog of applications and is proposing changes to the citizenship test.

The Senate bill, which has the support of President Bush, grants a path to citizenship to millions of illegal aliens — forcing Congress to confront the value of citizenship.

As for the new fees, Congress will be faced with three choices: do nothing, allowing the increases to go into effect; overturn them, forcing the agency to make do with its current revenue; or find money in the federal budget to make up the difference.

Democrats have called the fees a “citizenship tax” and several have said Congress should use taxpayer dollars to lower the costs for immigrants.

“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,” Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, told Mr. Gonzalez earlier this year when the agency made a preliminary proposal.

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. Right now, the fees result in $1.3 billion in revenue per year for the agency. The new fees will bring in an additional $1.1 billion.

The costs for naturalized citizenship and green cards, the intermediary step to citizenship, will both nearly double. But Mr. Gonzalez said the agency has expanded the rules for those eligible for waivers of the fees.

Those applying for asylum or refugee status would not pay any fee.

Mr. Gonzalez said the agency bowed to complaints about the cost for families, reducing the fee for children younger than 14. A family of four will now save $360 compared with January’s proposal.

The increases have drawn opposition from businesses to educational associations to local governments. The Arlington County Board earlier this month adopted a resolution opposing the increases, calling it “a nearly insurmountable barrier in the path of legal permanent residents.”

And Marlene M. Johnson, executive director of an association promoting international education, said she was “offended by the image” of selling immigration benefits.

In its official submission to the Federal Register, USCIS said some of those who submitted comments said USCIS should increase fees even more, but the agency rejected that idea as inconsistent with its charge to raise just the money needed for operations.

The agency also rejected calls for lower fees, saying its role is not to use costs to encourage or discourage immigration. And the agency said past fee increases have not caused applications to drop.

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