The Trump administration has nearly doubled the cost of applying to become a U.S. citizen, a development Nevada immigration advocates are likening to “another form of voter suppression.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a final rule in the Federal Register last week detailing a hike in fees for some of its most common immigration procedures, including an 81 percent increase in the cost to apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.
The fee to apply for naturalization will increase from $640 to $1,160 if filed online, or $1,170 in paper filing. The agency also announced increases in fees for dozens of other immigration and work applications set to go into effect on Oct. 2.
The changes also apply to states across the nation, including Florida.
Critics of the fee increases argue that the new financial burdens during a major economic downturn will prevent lawful permanent residents — also known as “green card” holders — from seeking full U.S. citizenship and gaining the right to vote.
“In short, we see this as an attack on immigrants on behalf of the current administration,” said Rosa Molina, director of immigration services for the Prograssive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). “What they want is to prevent people from becoming citizens, thus suppressing the vote.”
More than 23 million U.S. immigrants will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, making up about 10 percent of the electorate, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on Census Bureau data.
“This is another form of voter suppression in a state that just passed election protections,” said LaLo Montoya, the political director at Make The Road Nevada, a nonprofit organizing for immigrant and workers rights. “The state needs to recognize it as voter suppression.”
The immigration agency, however, said in a statement that the increase in fees was necessary to recover operational costs. The USCIS is funded primarily by fees from applications it processes.
According to the statement, the Department of Homeland Security agency adjusted fees by a weighted average increase of 20 percent to avoid a funding shortfall estimated at $1 billion per year.
“These overdue adjustments in fees are necessary to efficiently and fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, secure the homeland and protect Americans,” said Joseph Edlow, USCIS deputy director for policy, in a press release.
University Legal Services Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic, Michael Shamoon, said some of the most drastic rate increases include work visas, citizenship, permanent legal residence and documents for families of crime victims.
Petitions for employment authorization went up by 34 percent to $550 and are no longer included in the cost of adjustment of status applications.
“The effect of this fee increase is that many individuals will now not be able to apply for immigration benefits, specifically adjustment of status, employment authorization and naturalization,” said Shamoon. “It’s going to make it really difficult for people to apply for those benefits.”
“This will definitely disproportionately affect lower income immigrants,” Shamoon said. “To a certain extent that’s a consequence USCIS and the administration as a whole are aware of.”
Molina, the director of immigration services for PLAN, said her office has received a lot of calls from people who want to apply for naturalization before the price hike in October, but government shutdowns due to the pandemic have made it difficult. Many of her clients have even had their citizenship ceremony rescheduled.
Those delays may become worse in the coming months. The USCIS is expected to furlough more than 13,000 employees at the end of August due to projected deficits, potentially increasing application backlogs.
Currently, processing for naturalization in Las Vegas is taking between 12 to 19 months, according to USCIS’ online processing times calculator. In the Reno office, that timeframe is between 10 to nearly 18 months.
In Nevada, there were nearly 10,431 naturalization applications pending as of March 31, according to the latest data from USCIS. During the same time period in 2016, the application backlog was at just 5,443.
Between the pandemic, the furloughs and other factors, citizenship applicants “may see wait time double if not more than double,” Shamoon said.
Families of immigrants who worked the Route 91 festival, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern history, will likely be affected by the fee increase, said Montoya, the political director of Make the Road Nevada.
Survivors of the shooting applied for a U-visa in the aftermath of the shooting, a visa meant for victims of crimes who meet certain requirements. Holders of a U-Visa can legally live in the U.S. for four years. After three years of having a U-Visa a person can apply for a green card to stay in the U.S permanently.
But the fee increase also includes the I-929, a petition for qualifying family members of victims of criminal activity, raising the cost from $230 to $1,485 an increase of 546 percent.
Make The Road Nevada worked with survivors to apply for the vistas.
“One of the reasons the community is worried is because it’s a bad time to raise fees especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Molina. “They won’t be able to pay that kind of money. There’s a lot of people who are probably going to remain permanent residents because they are not going to have the option to become U.S. citizens.”