Nearly 7,000 comments were submitted in response to a proposed increase in U.S. visa fees, with the majority voicing fierce opposition and concerns.
Last week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ended public comment for a proposed fee increase unveiled by the Biden administration in January. The deadline for public comment was initially set for March 6, but was extended another week until March 13 due to a technical issue.
Under the proposal, application fees for most categories of immigration to the United States would increase. Some fees, like those for employment-based visas and family-based immigrant applications, will face dramatic increases.
Application fees for U.S. citizens and permanent residents hoping to sponsor family members for permanent residency — known as a green card — would increase by 33% to $710, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Fees for marriage-based green card applications could double from $1,760 to over $3,640, USCIS citing the higher cost of proving a valid family relationship exists. Requests from U.S. citizens seeking to bring their fiancés to the U.S. would increase by 35%, from $535 to $720.
Immigration officials say fee increases are necessary to hire staff, reduce pending cases backlog
Federal immigration officials say the fee increases for certain petitions are necessary to recover operational costs, speed up application reviews, hire more staff, and reduce the agency’s backlog of pending cases. In 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic reduction in new applications, resulting in a temporary drop in revenue by 40%, according to USCIS.
About 96% of USCIS funding comes from filing fees, rather than congressional funds, to administer the nation’s legal immigration system.
The proposed changes will not take effect until a final rule is published. It remains to be seen whether the agency will move forward with the fee increases it proposed in January, or if it will enact a modified version based on feedback from the public.
Families stuck in the visa process, however, criticized the government for proposing additional costly fees to recoup costs before addressing cases languishing in red tape.
Families must wait years while immigration issues resolve
Felesia Wade, a Clark County School District special education teachers assistant in Nevada, booked an appointment for an immigration clinic hosted by Democrat Rep. Steven Horsford on Friday to resolve an issue with her husband’s green card application. He has had to remain in Kenya for nearly two years while his case is resolved.
“How are you going to raise fees for a service that you’re not even providing?” Wade said.
Wade said she’s thankful she has already paid her husband’s application fees, adding that any additional cost would be a struggle to pay. The immigration process itself is costly, said Wade, but being separated from family incurs other costs as well.
“I teach all day and when school gets out, I turn on my app so I can do Uber so I can pay for a flight to go over there. But right now, it doesn’t even look like I’ll be able to see him this year,” Wade said through tears.
“When I inquired on the internet, you know, you get the automated message saying that they’re behind due to COVID, but we’re in 2023 now,” Wade said. “We’re still just waiting in limbo.”
In public comments filed with the USCIS, immigration advocates heavily criticized increasing fees for standard filings, especially fees affecting children.
Under the proposal, anyone applying for a change of immigration status from within the U.S. would have to pay more than double the cost, a potentially devastating financial impact on low-income applicants who lack the ability to pay the new fees.
Filing fees for children under 14 years old who are adjusting their status with a parent are currently reduced, but under the new proposal, that fee would also increase by $790, mirroring the cost of an adult application.
For an immigrant family of four, the costs of adjusting their status to become permanent residents could exceed $10,000 when adding up the total cost of the new fees proposal, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Horsford said his clinic Friday was an opportunity to expedite existing immigration cases, but also a chance to meet with Nevadans about new cases before fee increases are implemented.
“The fees create additional burdens and barriers for many of the working-class families that are already struggling to make ends meet, so while I strongly support the work of USCIS to help move these cases along in a positive manner, I don’t believe these huge increases in costs will allow as many families to seek the resolution they require. My office will continue to help as many of my constituents as possible to find that resolution,” Horsford said in a statement.
‘A severe labor shortage’
Democratic U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also criticized USCIS for employment-based fee increases. The proposal would increase H-2A and H-2B visas from $460 to $1,080 and $1,090, respectively.
Last week, Manchin and a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security urging the agency to hold off on increasing visa fees for foreign workers.
“As you know, we are at a time when many in our country are suffering from a severe labor shortage and persistent inflation. It is irresponsible to so drastically increase the price to access these essential guest worker programs while doing nothing to increase their availability,” reads the letter.
In the letter, the senators also disparaged a proposal to charge employers seeking to sponsor immigrants for permanent U.S. residency or temporary work visas an additional $600 fee to fund the USCIS asylum program, which is responsible for screening asylum seekers along the southern border.
Nevada U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, who are not signed onto the letter, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they disapprove or support any of the proposed visa fee hikes for families and employers.
Federal immigration officials argue the proposal will benefit the agency and the legal immigration system. The USCIS said that while the proposed rule will increase some fees, it will preserve existing fee waiver eligibility for low-income and vulnerable populations.
The proposed rule would also add new fee exemptions for certain humanitarian programs, including the asylum program. If finalized, the proposed rule would decrease or minimally increase fees for more than one million low-income filers each year, according to USCIS.
“In addition to improving customer service operations and managing the incoming workload, USCIS must continue to fulfill our growing humanitarian mission, upholding fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve,” said USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou in a statement announcing the proposal in January. “This proposed rule allows USCIS to more fully recover operating costs for the first time in six years and will support the Administration’s effort to rebuild the legal immigration system.”