The Trump Administration announced on July 31 that it had issued a final rule regarding fees charged by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for immigration benefit applications. The Rule reflects not only a questionable shift in how USCIS funding works, but also a significant change in our national treatment of migrants.
According to USCIS, “The rule accounts for increased costs to adjudicate immigration benefit requests, detect and deter immigration fraud, and thoroughly vet applicants, petitioners and beneficiaries. The rule also supports payroll, technology and operations to accomplish the USCIS mission.” While the office is provided funding through Congressional appropriations for general operations, it is a largely fee-based agency. Fees fund nearly 97% of USCIS’ budget. Meaning, the people applying for immigration benefits cover the costs of processing their applications by paying fees associated with those applications. With the increase in fees, however, USCIS now seeks to have migrants not only cover the costs of processing, but to cover the additional costs of “fraud prevention” and operations that have resulted from the Administration’s efforts to make processes more difficult, utilize USCIS staff for immigration enforcement efforts, and deter applicants. The structure of the rule, however, makes clear that the Trump Administration believes the most vulnerable should shoulder this burden.
For example, the fee for a waiver of inadmissibility—usually required by applications who have prior immigration violations or criminal issues that would otherwise prevent their ability to obtain immigration benefits—is increasing from $930 to $1,400—a 51% increase. Compare this to the fee for a petition for immigrant worker (Form I-140), which is decreasing from $700 to $555—a 21% decrease. The application for a travel document is increasing by 3% from $575 to $590, while a Refugee Travel Document is increasing by 7% from $135 to $145. Applications for suspension of deportation is increasing 535 percent from $285 to $1,810. And, fees for applying for naturalization are increasing by 81 to 266 percent (depending on type of application).
Perhaps most egregiously, however, is the new inclusion for the first time in our history of a fee to apply for asylum. This makes the U.S. one of only three countries in the world—amongst us, Iran and Australia—to charge to obtain protection from persecution and torture.
Applications for asylum have traditionally been free, and they remain that way for the majority of countries in the world. This reflects the reality that those fleeing persecution and torture are the least able to afford application fees. As we know from many of our clients at The Advocates, asylum applicants have often been forced to flee their homes with very little notice—bringing with them only what they could quickly and covertly carry, with no time to liquidate assets. Additionally, many must pay exorbitant fees for travel into the U.S. or to help secure relevant travel documentation. In other cases, they may have spent all of their savings—and that of friends and family—to bribe their way out of jail lest they face certain death in their home countries. These are not the stories of individuals relocating to the U.S. for business opportunities or to be near family. As Warsan Shire explains: “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark….”
Yet, with this rule—in concert with myriad others proposed and implemented by the Administration seemingly since its first month in office—the United States is turning itself into another shark. No longer will the United States be welcoming those for whom migration is a last resort; instead, it will be saying that one must pay the price for safety or look elsewhere.
While a filing fee would have been an affront previously, this is all the more disturbing given the significant narrowing of approvals under the Administration’s many new rules. For example, the Administration has worked to nearly strip the right to apply for asylum as a victim of domestic of violence or due to threats from gangs and cartels. In other instances, it is working to expand bars for those perceived to persecute others, committed certain crimes, and more. Cases that we previously would have felt confident to see approved are now being referred to immigration judges who may also deny them. Thus, a $50 filing fee without a guarantee of protection is an affront to the human rights of migrants as well as the laws of the United States, which specifically enshrine the rights of asylum seekers and torture victims.
This rule also comes at the same time DHS issued its final rule significantly contracting the rights of asylum seekers to obtain authorization to work in the United States. Already, we know that many of our clients must depend on friends and community-members to survive after making the perilous journey to the U.S. Additionally, many asylum seekers are coping with trauma from torture while working to calm the nerves of their children who have journeyed with them. Others are working to learn basic English, bus routes, cultural nuances, and significant weather changes—all while quickly preparing their asylum cases before the one-year bar elapses. Now, they must do so without the prospect of work authorization for one-year (possibly not until their case is approved for someone who entered without inspection or failed to apply within one-year of entry) and pay the $50 filing fee simply for the opportunity to have their case heard. While we see through our work incredible stories of community support and asylee resilience, we also know that many of our clients experience further exploitation by those on whom they are forced to depend. Extending the wait time for employment authorization, demanding a filing fee, and restricting grants for asylum or prolonging the process extend the likelihood of exploitation and harm, violate the human rights of asylum seekers, and betray our roots as a leader in refugee protections.