WASHINGTON—Starting July 30, immigrants applying for citizenship, green cards and other services will pay nearly twice as much as they do now under a plan officials promised will transform the nation's chief immigration agency into a more efficient operation.
The new fees for citizenship and immigration services—which will double the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' $1.25 billion budget—are aimed at speeding up the processing of paperwork. But critics suggested the substantial hikes could put the squeeze on immigrants.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Emilio Gonzales, though, said the fee-dependent agency needs the cash infusion to improve services. He promised "substantial reductions" in the time it takes the agency to process an application. He said the fee increases also would allow the agency to move from a paper-based system to an electronic system.
"This is what it takes not just to keep us afloat, but moving forward," Gonzalez said in a conference call with reporters. "I understand anytime there's an increase there's concern. The big difference here is what people will see with the price increase: a much improved agency that will do what it says it will do, an increase in efficiency and an increase in productivity. That's something we're going to stand by and we need the funds to accomplish."
Nearly every immigration or naturalization fee would be raised, and some of the increases would be substantial, according to figures supplied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:
_ The application fee for citizenship would increase from $330 to $675, though it would be waived for those in the military.
_ The fee to apply for status as a legal permanent resident would rise from $325 to $1,010, including the cost of fingerprints. Children under 14 and filing with a parent would pay $600; applicants 79 and older would pay $930. Most of the fees include the cost of fingerprints.
_ The cost of work permits would rise from $180 to $340.
But Gonzalez said the agency expanded the type of waivers it will issue, including waiving fees for some younger immigrants. Also, some fees would not change while the $270 fee for a temporary visa for victims of human trafficking would be ended.
Jose Lagos, president of Miami-based Honduran Unity, called the increases "very significant," particularly for low-income families, and said he was urging clients to get their paperwork completed before the increase takes effect July 30.
Gonzalez promised the higher fees will cut processing lags, provide for better facilities and a better-trained staff.
With the new revenue, Gonzalez said he plans to hire 1,500 new immigration officers and open 39 new facilities—all aimed at processing green cards or citizenship applications in less than six months.
But advocates for immigrants were skeptical, noting the agency has failed before to deliver touted upgrades.
"I've been doing this almost 25 years and I've heard this promise so many times that I hate to say it, but it falls on deaf ears at this point," said Tammy Fox Isicoff, a Miami immigration attorney. "I don't think anyone believes it."
The fee boost comes as Congress grapples with an overhaul of the nation's immigration system. Depending on those results, the agency could be called on to process millions more applications from undocumented immigrants for temporary work permits, green cards and citizenship.
But Gonzalez said the fee increase is unrelated to the talks in Congress.
"If there was no legislation, we would still be going through this," he said. "To do nothing is to invite organizational disaster because we're just not covering the cost of doing business."
Members of Congress had criticized the agency for suggesting such a sizable fee hike, but Gonzalez said the timing of the announcement—while Congress is in recess and slow to react—was unrelated.
"We announced when we did," he said. "If we could have gotten it out earlier we would have."