Border Wall or No, Immigrants Will Soon Have to Scale a Paywall

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

New citizens take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Oakland Park, Florida. 

Just in case his border wall won’t be sufficient to keep out immigrants, President Trump is erecting a paywall as well.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to restrict access to fee waivers used by low-income immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship, green cards, and various other immigration benefits, potentially pricing out tens of thousands of low-income applicants as a result. The USCIS proposal, which was published last October, would reverse an Obama-era policy that loosened eligibility requirements for waiving agency fees. 

The types of applications affected by the reversal range from more mundane activities, like replacing a green card or registering a permanent residence, to matters of vital importance. USCIS waivers can be used by immigrants to cover fees for more than two dozen separate applications, including applications to apply for citizenship, file a legal appeal, receive employment authorization, and even suspend a deportation order. 

Despite the critical significance of these applications for indigent immigrants, the fees for many of them have spiked over the last two decades and can often be prohibitively expensive. An application for a green card currently costs $1,140, while applying for naturalization will set you back as much as $725 after factoring in the fees to pay for background checks (in 1989, the fee for applying for citizenship was $60, which is $120 in 2017 dollars). 

If poor applicants can no longer receive free services, advocates worry that a large number of otherwise eligible immigrants could be priced out of relief. In 2016 alone, the agency approved more than 627,000 fee waiver applications. That number dropped to about 285,000 fee waiver applications in 2017. 

In 2011, the Obama administration changed existing policy so that immigrants receiving any kind of state or federal means-tested benefit, such as Medicaid or food stamps, would be eligible for a fee waiver. The recent USCIS proposal would repeal that change and limit waivers only to applicants who can show their income is at or below 150 percentof the federal poverty threshold or prove their financial hardships through a written submission, a vague process that attorneys say can be difficult to undergo successfully. 

USCIS believes narrowing waiver eligibility is justified because certain states have their own income level guidelines for means-tested benefits which are more generous than the federal standards. As a result, USCIS said, “individuals who would not otherwise qualify under the poverty-guideline threshold and financial hardship criteria have been granted fee waivers.”

In other words, because benefits programs in certain states (for instance, California) go beyond what the federal government offers, USCIS now says that some of these immigrants receiving benefits are too wealthy for waivers. 

For perspective, consider a four-person family in Washington, D.C., making $54,216 a year, about 221 percent of the federal poverty line in 2018. Currently, they would be eligible to receive means-tested benefits like Medicaid and therefore also eligible for a USCIS fee waiver. Under the proposed changes, however, that same family would only qualify if the parents had made $37,650 or less. 

As such, USCIS’s proposed revision fails to account for the difference in costs of living from state to state (neither does the federal poverty line itself, which is the same for all 48 contiguous states). In the eyes of the agency, “low-income” should mean the same thing for immigrants in San Francisco as it does for those in St. Joseph, Missouri. 

The agency’s proposal, which received more than 1,000 public comments, also did not include projections of how many people would be affected by the changes. Legal-aid groups like the Catholic Legal Immigration Network have estimated that the change could impact  approximately two-thirds of all fee waiver applicants. 

Nor are the fees phased in according to applicants’ income levels. Under the proposed changes, the poorest immigrants will still able to qualify for free services, while those whose incomes come in just above the cut-off line will be expected to pay fees in full. This is no small inconvenience. The fee for applying to naturalize as a U.S. citizen alone can come close to a week’s worth of post-tax pay for a household earning between 150 and 250 percent of the poverty guidelines. 

2018 study conducted by Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab examined the effect of high costs on the rate of applications for naturalization. The study looked at a group of more than 800 low-income immigrants in New York who made just enough to be ineligible for an application fee waiver. Nearly half of them receiveda voucher from the researchers to cover the full application cost, while the rest were left to pay the full freight. Waiving the fees, the study concluded, increased naturalization application rates by more than 40 percent. 

“Any type of change that increases the barriers to naturalization or decreases the options available to immigrants will lead to fewer people able to apply,” says Michael Hotard, a lead researcher on the study, in reference to the USCIS proposal. 

Even the poorest immigrants who meet USCIS’s narrowed poverty criteria, however, could still run into new problems with the agency. Because USCIS would no longer consider means-tested benefits as a qualifying factor for fee waiver eligibility, applicants who have already passed a thorough income-level screening by government agencies would be required to prove their low-income status once more. Providing a letter from the government agency administering the benefit would no longer be sufficient proof. 

USCIS has also proposed significantly increasing the amount of documentation required to apply. Whereas now all that’s currently required from an immigrant family is a single fee waiver application, the proposed changes expand the necessary paperwork to include, among other things, IRS transcripts, confirmation from the IRS that the applicants are not required to pay federal taxes, and verification of their non-payment from the IRS. The agency wants an application form submitted for every member in a family requesting a fee waiver, even children. 

These changes would likely hit already-vulnerable segments of the immigrant population who either earn too little to file taxes or don’t work at all, such as students, the elderly, and the ill. 

While the Trump administration has demonstrated an acute distaste for red tape in the form of corporate regulations and environmental protection laws, the reverse is true when it comes low-income Americans, immigrants, and, most especially, low-income immigrants.

Recent policy proposals such as Trump’s already infamous “public charge” rule, which would give the federal government more leeway to deny noncitizens green cards based on their use of welfare programs, clearly signal a push to lock poor immigrants out. This rule could consider as “public charges” immigrants who have used various benefits programs, including food stamps, subsidized housing, and, you guessed it, USCIS fee waivers. 

The administration has caged countless immigrants in a cruel sort of catch-22. Permanent legal residence and citizenship not only offers certain protection from Trumpian aggression, they also usually mean access to significantly higher earnings and to more government-administered benefits. But before they can get there, many immigrants must cross a legal and economic minefield without relying on benefits, for fear that in a moment of need, that vulnerability might be weaponized against them to deny them citizenship, legal status, or the ability to remain in the United States. 

The shutdown appears to have put a hold on the USCIS proposal, for which the agency stopped taking public comments at the end of November, but once the government reopens, it’s likely only a matter of time until the proposal becomes policy. Unlike the public charge proposal, which must be preceded by a period for public comments before being finalized,and is more open to potential litigation, the fee waiver changes require only a revision of the I-912 application form and a rescinding of the Obama-era policy memo, both which can be done internally. 

USCIS did not respond to The American Prospect’s request for comment on this story. 

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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