The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Application fee increases a burden on immigrants

Director of Immigration Services in Little Rock says clients are 'shocked'

Published: December 29, 2016   
Dwain Hebda file photo
Maricella Garcia (in a 2012 photo), director of Catholic Immigration Services in Little Rock, said donations would help individuals and families afford the fee increases.

For immigrants trying to escape persecution, get their families to the United States safely, apply for citizenship and those just simply wanting to renew their green cards now have an extra burden, this time on their pocketbooks.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service announced application fee increases up to 37 percent for immigrants seeking benefits, beginning Dec. 23. Catholic Charities of Arkansas is the only nonprofit agency in the state recognized by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals and one of the few charities that can assist low-income immigrants. CCA’s Immigration Services offices in Little Rock and Springdale assist immigrants in applying for benefits at a significantly lower cost than they would find at a private attorney, said Maricella Garcia, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock. 

“I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding of how immigration works. The question you hear is ‘Why don’t they get in line and become citizens?’ First thing, it doesn’t work that way,” Garcia said. “There’s little steps they have to take and if you put these increased burdens on them, it makes it more likely they won’t take the little steps it takes to get through the big process.”

‘Really big hike’

In addition to all the fee hikes, most applicants must pay $85 for a biometric services fee, which covers the background checks done by USCIS.

Common applications that the Little Rock and Springdale offices see from clients include:

  • I-192 Application for Advance Permission to Enter as Nonimmigrant, filed with the I-918 Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status typically called a “U Visa,” which is a visa for victims (and their families) of crimes who are willing to assist law enforcement or the government during investigations and/or prosecutions; the fee increased from $585 to $930.
  • I-129F Petition for Alien Fiancé(e), to bring a fiancé or fiancée into the country; the fee increased from $340 to $535.
  • I-130 Petition for Alien Relative, allowing someone to bring typically children or a spouse into the country; the fee increased from $420 to $535. “They don’t have $2,000 to pay at one time for their four kids. Our clients are low income,” Garcia said.
  • I-765 Application for Employment Authorization, an application for a work permit; the fee increased from $380 to $410.
  • N-400 Application for Naturalization, to become a citizen; the fee increased from $595 to $640. Frank Head, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Springdale, said every day people inquire about citizenship applications. “It remains to be seen whether it’ll dampen citizenship applications … I think that will make it harder for people to apply,” he said. “The net effect I expect will be less people are able to apply for benefits they’re eligible for.”
  • I-90 Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card, for cards that are lost or stolen; the fee increased from $365 to $455. “Let’s say your card is stolen. You’re still a permanent resident, but don’t have proof of it because someone stole your card,” Garcia said. “You come up with $540 (which includes the biometrics fee) to renew the card and then your car breaks down. This happened to one of my clients literally … people don’t often get easy choices -- do you pay for the car or the card? You have to use the car to get to work” to raise the money to pay for the increased fees.

“This is a really big hike; pretty much in everything we do the fee has been raised,” Garcia said, adding her clients are “shocked.”

“I think it’s really hard to understand if you’ve never dealt with immigration. What you get on TV is not the reality you see out here,” she said.

USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez said in a Dec. 15 USA Today article that “as an agency dependent upon users’ fees to operate, these changes are now necessary to ensure we can continue to serve our customers effectively.” The agency did not raise fees after fiscal year fee reviews in 2012 and 2014.

Head said while he respects the congressional intent for the immigration process to be self-supporting, “I think it’s gone beyond that and the fees have become prohibitive. I suspect the intention behind it is more than financial responsibility. It’s gone to political intent to prevent more immigration or restrict it.”

Some applicants can apply for fee waivers, but they must meet the poverty guidelines and/or demonstrate a hardship, an often-strenuous process especially for victims of crimes.

“I have a client who was a victim of domestic abuse from her husband. He filed the taxes and did not file her on the taxes so there’s no proof of her income to introduce to USCIS. He was arrested for abusing her, convicted and deported,” Garcia said.

The client was pregnant and had to have an emergency C-section, causing her to take off work longer than anticipated. Now, with five children, her finances are strapped.

“I have to show all that. We have to explain it on the form, bills that she has. That’s what makes it so hard to do. You have to really paint the story for them.”

Garcia said CCA has to charge clients certain fees on top of USCIS fees. She said a “simple” U Visa -- one for a client with no major immigration record -- could cost $650, but added at a regular attorney, the cost could be thousands. It could take her 50 hours to put the application package together.

“Most of what I see now are children that are victims of rape, 13 or 14 years old. They have to explain exactly what happened and how it’s affected them, their words, no one else’s,” she said. “It’s more than legal work and involves being able to deal with trauma and being conscious of that.”

Stories like these put a face to immigrants that are often stereotyped. Head said his clients are “humble, unassuming and the least likely to feel entitled.”

“That very comment, ‘Why don’t people just wait their turn in line’ sounds reasonable but try telling a 70-year-old mother that she’s going to have to wait another 25 years for her adult daughter to get an immigration benefit that allows her to come see her by which point she might not be living,” Head said. “Tell a brother who is trying to get his sister out of an abusive gang neighborhood in El Salvador, wait 25 years until she can come here legally.”

How and why to help

Grants from places like Christ the King Church in Little Rock who gave $4,800 in 2016 have helped lower USCIS fees for clients on forms like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Garcia said. Anyone can donate to Immigration Services to help lower the fees for clients.

“Try to put yourself in a position if some unimaginable set of events happened in the U.S. and your family was separated from you and you’re unable to sleep through the night for fear they could be murdered,” Head said, adding the response from the government is, “just get in line; we’ll fix it in 25 years. I would hope compassion would get the better of your reasoning.”

Even applications that have been submitted years ago are still on hold. Garcia said immigration is “very behind” on U Visas. Though people have been approved, only 10,000 are given in a year and there are currently 86,980 applications pending with the federal government today, Garcia said.

The mission of Catholic Charities is to keep families together and by Catholics donating to immigration clients, they’re helping them become legal, Garcia said.

“It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing and get status. They want status,” she said. “… We help keep people together. The families get to be reunited and the person who is an immigrant gets legal status. They are here legally and you’ve accomplished their goal. Even if you think they should wait in line, donating is one way to make the line move.”

To learn more about ways to donate, visit

Please read our Comments Policy before posting.

Article comments powered by Disqus