Thursday, September 24, 2009
UPDATED: Immigration Agency Head Says Fee Hikes a Last Resort
By Susan Montoya Bryan
The head of the federal agency in charge of processing millions of applications for citizenship and immigration to the U.S. says he understands the hardships that raising application fees would have on the community.
But Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, stressed to reporters Thursday that raising fees is only one option the agency has as it grapples with a revenue shortfall. The agency depends on fees from applications for immigration-related services to pay for its operations.
"The potential fee increase is not something that is taken lightly. We understand very well its impact," Mayorkas said. "In my personal view, it would be something of last resort and ... it should be as respectful as possible of the burden it in fact imposes."
The comments come a day after Mayorkas announced that an increase in fees was among the options the agency has to make up for a projected $118 million shortfall. He said asking Congress for a greater appropriation and making cuts within the agency are other ways CIS can absorb declining revenues, but the agency has made no decisions.
Agency officials have blamed the revenue shortfall on an overall drop in immigration-related applications being filed amid an economic slump.
In 2007, the agency increased the cost of applying for citizenship from $400 to $675, and applications surged before the higher fees took effect. The number of applications for both naturalization and status adjustments have plummeted since then, according to statistics kept by the agency.
Immigrant advocates argue that the fees are high enough now and that another fee increase would only hamper the number of applicants.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., called it a vicious cycle. If the agency doesn't have enough revenue to process applications in a timely manner, it might be forced to raise fees and that could lead to even fewer applicants.
"Congress has really been reluctant to revisit this whole idea that we shouldn't be trying to finance our immigration system basically solely on the backs of applicants," she said. "I think the agency and the applicants are both kind of caught between a rock and hard place."
While the Obama administration has no concrete proposals for immigration reform, Mayorkas said during his stop in Albuquerque that his agency is preparing for the potential impacts any reform might have on its ability to continue providing services in a timely manner.
He said the administration has indicated that reform should include "smart and effective" enforcement and security of the country's borders as well as a path to citizenship for the millions of people in the U.S. without documentation.
That could put more pressure on the agency, immigration advocates say.
Giovagnoli said there aren't many mechanisms in place for the agency to ramp up for new programs because it relies solely on revenue from fees.
"It's a policy debate that is really in the weeds but is really important," she said. "If we can't figure out a better way to fund the agency, we're always going to be looking at these kinds of problems."
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