After using her savings to pay for rent and groceries during the coronavirus pandemic, Diana Garcia Hernandez found herself again dipping into her stash to cover the cost of an application to become a U.S. citizen.
“I think earlier, it was just life getting the best of me,” Garcia Hernandez said, explaining she hadn’t applied before because she is a single mother of two. “Sometimes you don’t have that extra money to spare.”
But Garcia Hernandez, 24, of Cicero, knew if she didn’t start the process to become a citizen this month, she would face an application fee that is set to rise from $640 to $1,160 — an 81% increase — on Oct. 2 as part of fee changes at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The details of the changes were made public July 31.
She is among those in the Chicago area scrambling to submit immigration applications before the government imposes fee changes. The increase in demand comes as naturalization applications already faced a backlog, some caused by coronavirus shutdown-related delays. A nonprofit, Immigrants Like Us, recently was created to help immigrants navigate applications.
“I couldn’t believe how much the fees were increasing,” Garcia Hernandez said. “It put me in the high gear to get everything ready to apply before the deadline.”
In West Rogers Park, the Indo-American Center submitted 40 citizenship applications by mid-September, a sharp increase from the typical 12 to 20 applications it submits each month, said Angie Lobo, the executive director of the center, which provides social services for South Asian immigrants.
And some people are driving from Chicago to Waukegan to get assistance from Catholic Charities, which has seen an uptick in calls from people who want help completing immigration applications, said Jocelyn Jaramillo, an immigration specialist.
The agency, which receives its revenue through the fees, would be underfunded by about $1 billion per year if the amounts stayed the same, according to a news release. The changes are also meant to “detect and deter immigration fraud, and thoroughly vet applicants, petitioners and beneficiaries,” the agency stated in a release.
“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, in a statement.
A group of immigration advocates, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, filed a federal lawsuit in California challenging the fees.
On Friday, Samina Bharmal, an attorney representing the groups, argued during a virtual hearing seeking injunction relief that Chad Wolf, the acting U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, does not have the authority to implement the changes because of legal questions surrounding if he was properly installed in the post. She also argued there wasn’t enough information explaining USCIS’ finances.
The government defended Wolf’s appointment. Julie Straus Harris, an attorney for the government, argued the immigration groups were speculating how the changes would affect the grants the groups rely on for funding.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White, of the northern district of California, did not immediately rule on the immigration groups’ motion.
Fred Tsao, policy director for the coalition, said the group worries the changes narrow who can receive a fee waiver when applying through USCIS. But even if waivers were more widely available, he thinks people would still get priced out.
“We see really dire impacts coming if this new fee rule goes into effect,” he said.
The changes will likely impact about half of the people the coalition serves through its New Americans Initiative, which receives state funding for activities like citizenship classes and workshops to help people fill out naturalization applications.
The changes include a $50 fee for anyone who wants to claim asylum in the U.S. Jims Porter, a spokesman for RefugeeOne, said he believes the new fees add up to a wealth test for immigrants. The resettlement agency works with immigrants, many of whom would have been granted fee waivers in the past, Porter said.
“It’s putting citizenship out of reach for millions of low-income refugees and immigrants,” Porter said.
The organization has been pushing people to submit applications before Friday. It’s also trying to find ways to fill the financial gap. One idea is to allow individuals to give donations to offset the cost of immigration applications, Porter said.
Lobo said the Indo-American Center has also done outreach in the past couple of weeks, urging people to submit citizenship applications even if they feel nervous about their English skills.
Salim Barkat and his wife, Nafisa, submitted their applications for citizenship last week with help from the Indo-American Center. Salim Barkat said a friend told him about the upcoming increases.
The couple started saving up to apply for citizenship last year. Nafisa Barkat works in nursing homes, and Salim Barkat delivers food from restaurants through a third-party app.
“If I become a citizen, I (will) feel proud, I (will) feel good,” Salim Barkat said. “One day you have to become a citizen; that day has come.”
The couple moved from India to the western suburb of Addison in 2015, and they would like to become citizens to help their children immigrate to the country. He said both have had health problems recently and could use the help from their children.
Garcia Hernandez, who submitted her application for citizenship this week, said she always wanted to become a citizen so she could vote. She came to the country when she was about 4 years old from Mexico.
Her brother also wants to apply to become a citizen, but she wasn’t sure if he’ll be able to come up with the money before the deadline. His hours were cut at his job, and finances have been stretched thin, she said.
“To raise over 80% (the fee) during a pandemic, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “They are just stripping away what could have been the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Kathleen Vannucci, a Chicago-based immigration attorney and vice chair of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the changes will also impact those applying for adjustment of status, also known as becoming a resident, because the agency will now require people to pay separate fees to get work authorization and travel documents.
Immigration advocates said they were already seeing an increase in denials for fee waivers. Jaramillo, who works out of the Waukegan office for Catholic Charities, started to notice more denials last year and told clients to include more documentation related to their income. It didn’t seem to change the outcomes, she said.
She typically only handles cases from Waukegan, but she started helping people from Chicago because of how many calls they’ve been fielding in the weeks before Friday’s fees change. The uptick in demand comes as she and her co-workers are trying to adhere to COVID-19 precautions.
“I feel like this is another attack discouraging people from applying for naturalization or other benefits, making it more difficult to obtain a legal status,” Jaramillo said. “Overall, it’s just very disappointing. ”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.