June 10, 2010

Immigration Fees Set to Rise

The nation's immigration chief is proposing several fee increases for green cards and visas in an effort to plug a revenue shortfall at his agency, caused in part by a decline in applications.

The fee increases—proposed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas and likely to go into effect this summer after a public comment period—would be the first since 2007. They would raise by an average of 10% the cost of filing petitions for permanent legal residency and temporary residency for foreign skilled workers and foreign entrepreneurs.

The move could cause applications to rise as people rush to get their paperwork in ahead of the increase. Applications surged in 2007, although that fee increase was much sharper.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Former refugees and asylum seekers are sworn in as citizens in March in Washington, D.C.

Among those who would be affected are U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents who are seeking to bring immediate relatives into the country. About 650,000 of these applications were filed in 2009. The proposed increase for these applications, to $420 from $355, is substantial in percentage terms—18%—but an increase of $65 is unlikely to deter many people, given the application's purpose.

The proposed increases don't change the cost of applying to become a U.S. citizen—$675. That fee went up 69% three years ago.

"This is certainly better than last time, when increases averaged 66%," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But "we continue to be plagued with poor-quality service."

Instead, fees for applications for H-1B, L and O visas, which are required of foreigners who come to the U.S. to work in jobs in high-tech companies, universities and the arts, would rise slightly. The fee for processing an application for the first step toward citizenship, a green card, would increase to $965 from $930, plus $85 for required electronic fingerprints, an increase of $5.

Other increases would be stiffer. For example, the initial cost to process a petition for a foreigner seeking to earn the right to live in the U.S. by investing at least $500,000 and creating at least 10 jobs, under a program known as EB-5, would rise to $1,500 from $1,435. But another fee associated with the program, which must be paid about two years later, would jump to $3,750 from $2,850.

Operators of so-called regional centers, projects designated to receive investment by the foreigner entrepreneurs, would have to pay $6,230 to qualify for those funds, according to the new fee structure. Currently, there is no fee.

Mr. Mayorkas said at a news conference that "we have worked hard to minimize the size of the proposed increase through budget cuts and other measures." However, he said, revenue generated from fees in the last two years was much lower than projected, and revenue in fiscal year 2010, which ends Sept. 30, remains low.

While the agency received appropriations from Congress, budget cuts of approximately $160 million haven't bridged the remaining gap between costs and anticipated revenue. The agency, which is required by law to recoup its expenses with fees, hopes to collect $200 million a year in new revenue as a result of the increases. It needs about $2.3 billion annually to operate, the director said.

Mr. Mayorkas has been traveling around the country to meet with business leaders, immigrant advocates and agency employees as he completes what he calls a "top-to-bottom review" of the agency ahead of an overhaul, which started with the creation of a new fraud detection unit.

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