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New Restrictions on Waivers of Immigration Filing Fees Are Unlawful

Changes Will Hurt the Most Vulnerable

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not comply with federal rulemaking requirements when it narrowed the standard for individuals to receive waivers of the expensive application fees that the agency charges for immigration benefits, such as visas or naturalization, Public Citizen said in a lawsuit filed today on behalf of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Immigration application fees can be hundreds of dollars or more. Under a longstanding policy, USCIS followed a simple framework for considering applications for waivers of certain fees, typically allowing individuals to establish eligibility for waivers by showing that they receive an income-based government-benefit or that their income is under 150% of the federal poverty guidelines.

In October, however, USCIS narrowed the fee-waiver eligibility standard. Under its new standard, which will take effect Dec. 2, the agency will no longer allow individuals to establish eligibility by showing receipt of government benefits. And to show eligibility through income or financial hardship, individuals will have to meet onerous new documentation requirements.

For many of NWIRP’s clients, fee waivers are essential to allow them to apply for immigration benefits. NWIRP provides legal assistance to thousands of low-income immigrants in Washington State every year, helping them apply for benefits such as citizenship, protections for survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking and work authorization.

“These are significant, substantive changes that will make it much more difficult for applicants to demonstrate what should be a straightforward fact – that they cannot afford expensive fees,” said Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP.

“Making fee waivers inaccessible will hurt individuals who are trying to escape domestic abuse or trafficking, receive permission to work, or naturalize as citizens,” said Rebecca Smullin, the Public Citizen attorney representing NWIRP.

USCIS has attempted to restrict fee-waiver eligibility by using the Paperwork Reduction Act to change the fee-waiver form and introducing changes to its internal manuals. In today’s lawsuit, Public Citizen and NWIRP argue that the new form should have undergone notice-and-comment rulemaking; that the agency did not comply with the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act; and that the changes to the fee-waiver standard and procedures are arbitrary and capricious.

Read the lawsuit here.