Before falling in love and getting married, Marco Malagon’s chances of obtaining legal status were slim.
While his brother is a U.S. citizen and could have petitioned for him, Malagon learned that process would’ve taken years.
So in January 2017, about two years after they married, Laura and Marco Malagon filed joint applications for him to get legal status. Laura, a U.S. citizen, could petition for Marco to register as a legal permanent resident without having to wait years to be approved.
Marco said the process cost them between $4,000 to $5,000, even with an attorney taking their case pro bono. But he said it was worth it because now he can be here to provide for his two children.
He’ll be eligible to apply for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen in about a year. But a recent announcement from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the cost of applications for citizenship are rising from $640 to $1,170 -- an 83% increase -- has him dreading the strain the hike will put on the family’s finances.
The increase is part of a proposed across-the-board 21% overall increase for certain immigration applications proposed by USCIS a couple of weeks ago. The agency says the hikes are needed to cover operational costs and to pay for better vetting of applicants.
But policy analysts worry that the increases will keep eligible immigrants from being able to complete the legal immigration process, especially because the proposal also eliminates or limits availability of some fee waivers. Close to 260,000 immigrants are eligible to naturalize across the Dallas-Fort Worth metro.
The proposal also features the transfer of some $207 million from USCIS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s pretty clear that the Trump administration is using every tool at its disposal to make legal immigration more difficult for families, especially those in lower income brackets,” said Xiao Wang, co-founder and CEO of Boundless, a technology firm that guides immigrants applying for benefits.
Wang added that attorney fees can cost thousands of dollars on top of application fees, something that could price many out of completing the legal immigration process.
“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis. This proposed adjustment in fees would ensure more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimizes subsidies from an already over-extended system,” acting USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement earlier this month.
But that reasoning is questionable considering that USCIS has recently taken in fewer applications while also taking longer to process applications, said Jason Boyd, policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
AILA analyzed USCIS data, looking at data between 2014 and 2018 and found how the agency’s processing times differed between the Obama and Trump administrations:
The agency has added some requirements, like in-person interviews for immigrants petitioning for green cards through employers, re-adjudicating applications to extend some work visas that had already been approved and increasing the number of requests for more evidence that can stall the processing of cases, Boyd said.
“This proposal would force USCIS customers to pay more for less. This is a dramatic increase the government is making without offering evidence that this will actually reverse ongoing deterioration of the services the agency provides,” Boyd said.
In a statement, a USCIS spokesperson said that “Current fees would leave the agency underfunded by approximately $1.3 billion per year. The proposed fee rule accounts for increased costs to adjudicate immigration benefit requests, detect and deter immigration fraud, and thoroughly vet applicants, petitioners, and beneficiaries.”
Application such as waivers, family- and employment-based applications, nonimmigrant visas and other petitions are going up in price. For example:
A full list of the price changes can be found on the rule proposal at federalregister.gov. The public comment period is open until December 16. Some application costs are decreasing.
Naturalization application costs were most recently raised 8% in 2016.
These price increases are only for the applications themselves. Many immigrants hire law firms to prepare their forms -- another step that can add thousands of dollars to the overall cost of the immigration process.
Policy changes under the Trump administration that have given USCIS officers widespread discretion in how they handle applications highlight the need for legal assistance now more than ever, Wang said.
USCIS officers now have the discretion to deny applications without even giving applicants a chance to provide more evidence or clarify mistakes on their applications, per a policy instituted in September 2018. USCIS typically doesn’t refund fees, regardless of outcome.
“It’s not just about filling out these forms. It’s about filling them out correctly so that they’re accepted the first time,” Wang said. “So much of your life as an immigrant is dependent on these forms.”
Marco Malagon, who has worked as an immigrant rights advocate for years, said he was fortunate that an attorney handled his case for free, but he’s saddened by how the new changes may hurt families trying to complete the legal process.
He added that he’s not sure he’ll have the same good luck of getting an attorney to take on his naturalization case for free again, so he’ll probably just have to suck it up and pay the costs.
“It’s sad that the government, rather than helping us, is putting up more barriers for immigrants. All we want to do is provide for our families and for this country,” Malagon said. “I gotta start saving. I’m lucky that I have a job and a supportive family, but I can’t imagine how hard this process will become for individuals who are sole providers for their families.”
Rebeca Puente, a 24-year-old DACA recipient, knows that financial pressure all too well.
Since first applying for DACA in 2012, Puente said she’s submitted four renewal applications. That means she’s paid the federal government close to $2,500 for five work authorization permits.
The first time she applied in 2012, she was a high school senior. She had expenses like senior class trips, college applications and college entrance exams that burdened her family’s budget.
“I depended a lot on my parents, who were surprisingly able to pull off paying for my DACA application,” said Puente, who now works as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm. “As I got older and started working, I could afford them. I just had to plan ahead.”
Puente said DACA recipients like herself might soon find themselves between a rock and a hard place if the increase goes into effect.
“In order to be able to pay for it, you need to have a job. And you can’t get a job without DACA,” Puente said. She added that she may consider sending in another renewal before next summer, when the Supreme Court may deliver a ruling on whether the Obama-era program can stand.
“My family is becoming more dependant on me to help with costs of living. I’m going to have to weigh the help I provide to them now against the $765, if I’m able to renew again,” Puente said.