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Statement opposing proposed USCIS fee increases

Feb 3, 2020 : Articles
New U.S. citizens during Literacy Pittsburgh ceremony

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, announced its new proposed fee schedule on Nov. 8, 2019. This impacts a variety of immigration status adjustments—asylum seekers, naturalization, and DACA renewals. Of particular concern, is a proposed 83% increase to the naturalization fee, from $640 to $1,170. Additionally, USCIS is proposing to eliminate reduced fees as well as fee waivers for certain immigrants. This will increase the burden on low-income immigrants seeking to naturalize, delaying their access to the American dream for that much longer. Last year, 43 students achieved their goal of United States citizenship with the assistance of Literacy Pittsburgh.

Literacy Pittsburgh has submitted the following statement in opposition of this change to the Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security. 

You can submit your own comments regarding the proposed fee increases by February 10, 2020, at this website.  

Literacy Pittsburgh respectfully submits this comment on the proposed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Fee Schedule, published on November 14, 2019. We are concerned about a number of the fee and policy proposals in the published fee schedule, and request that USCIS withdraw all provisions that make immigration benefits less accessible to low-income and other vulnerable immigrants.

For 37 years, Literacy Pittsburgh has been building better lives through learning. The American Dream is alive within Literacy Pittsburgh—for those left behind, for those who just arrived, for those who never give up. As the largest adult education provider in Pennsylvania, we impact more than 5,000 individuals in our region each year. Approximately half of our students are immigrants who rely on us for English language learning, human services coordination, and preparation for citizenship.

We are witness to the transformational power of education every day. Thousands of students enrolled at Literacy Pittsburgh make significant educational gains. The skills and self-confidence they develop enables them to pursue their goals, whether those may be college, career, business ownership, citizenship, better parenting or other worthy pursuits. With each achievement, the cycle of poverty is disrupted, and the positive impact multiplied for the whole family for generations to come.

Our history and our experience welcoming newcomers to the United States demands that we call your attention to the devastating impact we anticipate from the USCIS’ proposed rate changes.

I. General Comments

The proposed USCIS fee schedule disproportionately increases fees and eliminates fee waivers for the benefit categories most commonly used by low-income immigrants, leaving essential immigration benefits accessible primarily to the affluent. These unwarranted changes would result in financial hardship for immigrant and mixed-status families. This would mean immigrants delaying or losing immigration status due to financial considerations, increased dependence on debt to finance applications, and decreased involvement of qualified legal assistance resulting in difficult and inefficient USCIS processing and adjudication, among many other problems.

Literacy Pittsburgh opposes USCIS’ attempt to place the burden of its own mismanagement on the backs of hard-working immigrant families. Since 2010, USCIS has increased filing fees by weighted averages of 10 percent and another 21 percent, but has not achieved any associated improvement in processing times, backlogs, or customer service. During that same period, USCIS’ backlog has increased by more than 6,000 percent,1 the overall average case processing time had increased 91 percent between 2014 and 2018,2 and USCIS has removed language from its resources that stated any commitment to customer service.3 USCIS’ purported shortfalls are a manmade problem that is a result its poor policy and organizational choices.

We describe below how some of these changes will impact our organization and our clients, and the reasons for our opposition. Omission of any proposed change from this comment should not be interpreted as tacit approval. We oppose all aspects of the proposed fee schedule that would act as a barrier between low-income immigrants and the immigration benefits for which they qualify.

II. Naturalization Fees Should Be Affordable

The proposed fee schedule would increase the filing fee for Naturalization from $640 to $1,170, an 83 percent increase. This substantial increase would make naturalization less accessible for low-income and working-class people. The benefits of naturalization to individuals and U.S. society cannot be overstated and the application must not be overpriced in order to avoid suppressing access to the benefits. “Citizenship can serve as a catalyst for immigrants to become more: dedicated to democratic principles; informed about the Constitution; engaged in political elections; represented in the political system; proficient in the English language; unified as families; employable in higher paying jobs; and integrated within a wider circle of people and institutions.”4 With approximately 9 million Lawful Permanent Residents, or LPRs, eligible to naturalize who have not yet filed,5 and the significant benefits that immigrant integration brings to the United States, it is in the country’s best interests to incentivize naturalization by maintaining a low application fee.

In combination with the elimination of the fee waiver, the fee increase for Naturalization would make citizenship unattainable for low-income immigrants. Congress has called on USCIS to keep the pathway to citizenship affordable and accessible.6 Pursuant to this expectation, USCIS has historically redistributed a portion of the cost of naturalization applications among other application fee types to subsidize affordable naturalization and encourage immigrant integration.7 This proposed fee rule would abandon that historic practice and charge the actual cost of naturalization to applicants, disregarding the agency’s previous concern for incentive and the affordability of naturalization. The proposed fee increase is contrary to Congressional intent, and contrary to the interests of the United States society and economy.

Literacy Pittsburgh has prepared nearly 250 immigrants to become citizens over the past ten years. In our experience, the existing fee is a burden for every student. Increasing the fee will put citizenship out of reach for those who are obviously willing to do the work to get themselves here and prepare for the process. This is especially true when more than one member of the family is seeking citizenship—multiplying the fee for husbands and wives, aging parents, adult children is already a hardship, and increasing the fee by 83% is untenable.

Consider the cases of some of our current students. Afghan women and their husbands, immigrated to the United States after having served our military as translators and interpreters, in the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan. They are working diligently to resettle and build their American dream, including working multiple jobs, paying taxes, and learning to speak the English language. Yet they struggle to afford the daily bus fare of just $3.75 needed to get to English classes and back home. A naturalization fee of $1,170 will put the American dream out of reach for these brave men and women.

For the reasons provided here, USCIS should promptly withdraw the provisions of its proposed fee schedule that would make immigration benefits less accessible to hard-working families and vulnerable people. USCIS has not used the filing fees applicants have already paid to USCIS efficiently, and they must not be expected to bear a significant increase in fees without improvement in processing times, backlogs, and customer service.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the proposed fee schedule. Please do not hesitate to contact me to provide further information.

Sincerely,
Carey A. Harris
Chief Executive Officer
Literacy Pittsburgh


1 See Policy Changes and Processing Delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Hearing before the House Subcomm. on Immigration of the H. Comm. On the Judiciary, 116th Cong. (2019) (joint written testimony of Don Neufeld, Associate Director, Service Center Operations Directorate, USCIS, and Michael Valverde, Deputy Associate Director, Field Operations Directorate, USCIS).

2 Am. Immigr. Law. Assoc., AILA Policy Brief: USCIS Processing Delays Have Reached Crisis Levels under the Trump Administration (2019), https://www.aila.org/advo-media/aila-policy-briefs/aila-policy-brief-uscis-processing-delays.

3 See Max Greenwood, Immigration Agency Removing ‘Nation of Immigrants’ from Mission Statement, THE HILL, Feb. 22, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/375112-us-immigration-agency-to-remove-reference-to-us-as-nation-of; see also Policy Alert: USCIS Public Services No. PA-2019-03 (May 10, 2019).

4 JEFF CHENOWETH AND LAURA BURDICK, CATHOLIC LEGAL IMMIGRATION NETWORK, AMORE PERFECT UNION: A NATIONAL CITIZENSHIP PLAN, at vii, https://cliniclegal.org/resources/guides-reports-publications/more-perfect-union-national-citizenship-plan.

5 Robert Warren and Donald Kerwin, The US Eligible-to-Naturalize Population: Detailed Social and Economic Characteristics, 3 J. Migration & Hum. Security 306, 306 (2015).

6 H. Rep. No. 115-948 accompanying H.R. 6776, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (2019).

7 See, e.g., U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule, 75 Fed. Reg. 58,975, www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2010-09-24/pdf/2010-23725.pdf.

Literacy Pittsburgh (formerly Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council) helps create better lives through learning. Recognized as a national leader in adult and family literacy, Literacy Pittsburgh is the largest provider of adult basic education in Allegheny and Beaver Counties. Last year, Literacy Pittsburgh helped more than 5,100 individuals acquire reading, writing, math, English language, computer and workforce skills so they may reach their fullest potential in life and participate productively in their communities. Literacy Pittsburgh provides free, personalized instruction in workforce readiness, high school diploma test preparation, English as a second language, basic skills, and family literacy through one-to-one and small class instruction, along with referrals to other family support organizations. Founded in 1982, it serves local adults through numerous neighborhood locations and its Downtown Pittsburgh Learning Center.