U.S. seeks to hike fees for immigration applications and impose first-ever asylum charge

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (CBS NEWS) – The Trump administration rolled out a proposal Friday to hike application fees for immigrants seeking to remain in the U.S. – including a first-ever charge for those seeking refuge. It’s the administration’s latest move to restrict pathways for obtaining asylum and immigration benefits like U.S. citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency in charge of administering immigration benefits, unveiled a proposed rule that would significantly increase petition fees for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, for young undocumented immigrants looking to renew protections from deportation and for victims of crimes who are seeking to stay in the country through their assistance to law enforcement.

The proposal would impose a $50 application fee for affirmative asylum applications and a $490 work permit fee for all asylum seekers. Fees for citizenship petitions would also increase from $750 to $1,170, and the amount could be higher for some immigrants.

“It’s an unprecedented weaponization of government fees,” Doug Rand, an Obama White House official who co-founded a company to help immigrants navigate the U.S. immigration system, said in a statement.

The proposal, which is slated to be published in the Federal Register Thursday, would make the U.S. one of only four nations that require asylum-seekers fleeing persecution to pay a fee for the government to process their applications. In its proposed rule, the administration noted that Iran, Fijii and Australia are the only countries known to charge for initial asylum applications.

Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, said there is a clear reason why only a very small group of countries impose fees for asylum petitions.

“The rationale is that if someone fears being persecuted then no amount of financial hardship should prevent them from being able to seek protection,” Bolter told CBS News. “It’s the recognition that it’s more important to protect someone from persecution than it is to receive payment for the services you are providing.”

After being published in the Federal Register, the proposed rule will be subject to a 30-day review period in which the public can make comments on it. The next step in the regulatory process is for USCIS to publish a final rule it can enforce.

Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hawk who was tapped to lead USCIS on an acting basis in June, defended the proposal, noting that his agency is funded by fees, unlike most federal government agencies.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “This proposed adjustment in fees would ensure more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimizes subsidies from an already over-extended system.”

Under the proposal, recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would have to pay substantially more to renew their protections, with their petition fee increasing from $495 to $765. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the several legal challenges to the administration’s efforts to dismantle the program, which shields more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation.

A form typically filed for petitioners of so-called U visas, a congressionally-mandated protection available to victims of crimes who can prove they helped or are willing to help the U.S. government investigate criminal activity, would also increase from $585 to $1,415 for some. The relief, if granted, allows recipients to eventually seek green cards and subsequent citizenship.

Friday’s proposal is just one of many recent unilateral changes the administration has sought to implement to overhaul the nation’s legal immigration system and restrict access to asylum protections.

The courts have recently halted the administration from enforcing stringent health care and insurance requirements for prospective immigrants, as well as another USCIS proposal, known as the “public charge” rule, which the government could use to deny green cards and temporary visas to immigrants in the U.S. and abroad who use – or are likely to use – public benefits like food stamps or government-subsidized housing.

Access to the asylum system has also been severely limited through the administration’s efforts to stem an unprecedented surge of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border that spiked in the spring but has dwindled in recent months.

The U.S. has required more than 55,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration court proceedings under the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. Officials are also now implementing a sweeping rule that allows them to deny asylum to migrants who traveled through Mexico to reach the U.S, and hope to soon use controversial bilateral agreements to reroute asylum seekers to Central America’s Northern Triangle.

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