Civil rights groups decry increase in naturalization fees, Federal judge grants class certification of asylum seekers case


| Photo USCIS

NEW YORK – Asian American civil rights groups condemn the decision of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to increase naturalization application fees from $640 to $1,160 and other fees with effect on October 2.

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) criticized the USCIS’s decision to raise fees during a period of unemployment.

“We know that many Americans would have been hard-pressed to cover an emergency expense of $400 before,” Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives at Advancing Justice said in a press release. “It is unconscionable for USCIS to implement drastic fee increases at a time that we are dealing with a pandemic and widespread unemployment. Furthermore, USCIS is doubling down on burdening immigrants by abolishing most fee waivers. These actions are an attack on aspiring new Americans and put citizenship further out of reach.”

Civil rights groups and activists say that the fee raises will disproportionately poor immigrants of color.

“As an organization that assists thousands of naturalization applicants each year, of whom over 60% are low income, we condemn this naturalization fee increase,” Christine Chen, project director for Advancing Justice-LA said in a press release. “This rule change will deeply hurt the low-income immigrants and vulnerable communities of color we serve at a time when those very communities are hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Lara Gregory, Esq. | File Photo

Filipino American Lara Gregory, Esq. commented that “this policy rule on immigration is vulnerable to the criticism that it is meant to market a candidate who has anti-immigration stance” given that the 2020 presidential elections is barely 90 days away. “USCIS admits that it is 97% funded by immigration fees and yet there is no indication how they will improve or even attempt to improve their response times to the immigration customers they supposedly serve to even justify such a drastic increase. Lastly, to charge $50 for asylum, a humanitarian measure for those fleeing persecution and violence pursuant to the Geneva Convention, is downright scandalous and appears mercenary.”

The rule, she said, “is designed to shore up approval ratings that have been decimated by his own abysmal response to the pandemic ravaging our country and economy.”

AAJC and other groups are urging eligible Americans to naturalize before October 2 if they are able. In the meantime, civil rights organizations say they will continue to fight for immigrants’ rights.

“Our organizations will continue to oppose the fee increase and the elimination of naturalization-related fee waivers,” Etcubañez said. “We will continue to work alongside immigrants’ rights advocates to ensure that citizenship remains accessible and affordable to all”

Groups also condemned the asylum fee

“There are only three other countries on this planet that enact an asylum fee on those who are fleeing persecution and violence,” Jose Ng, Immigrant Rights Program Manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action said in a press release. “We rebuke the racist impetus behind this policy. The Trump Administration has signaled a blatant disregard for human dignity, especially considering the plethora of hardships that asylees already have to endure in their journey for sanctuary.”

Gabriel de la Merced, Esq. | File Photo

Gabriel de la Merced, Esq., a Filipino American lawyer, said “the Administration cannot unilaterally abandon its obligations under international law in a cynical ploy to prop up the President’s political support among his hard-core anti-immigrant supporters.

“Even the government is bound by the rule of law, and have to honor its treaty obligations, and the customs and standards of international law in dealing with refugees.”

Class certification granted challenging Turnback Policy

Meanwhile, in San Diego, CA, a federal court has granted class certification in Al Otro Lado v. Wolf, a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s policy of turning back asylum seekers at ports of entry. The ruling provides that the challenge to the Turnback Policy will continue on behalf of all asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border who were or will be prevented from accessing the asylum process at ports of entry as a result of the government’s Turnback Policy.

“This ruling is a huge victory in a case that wouldn’t have been necessary had the government not set out to punish asylum seekers for following the government’s own rules,” said Erika Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado’s Litigation and Policy Director. “And while today’s ruling is an important win for asylum seekers, it is just one step in the effort to defeat the Trump administration’s war on asylum.”

“This is an incredibly important so ruling for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who would otherwise be denied access to the asylum process,” said Melissa Crow, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC’s) Immigrant Justice Project. “Since the earliest days of this administration, DHS has sought to systematically dismantle our asylum system. This policy, which turned back countless men, women and children after they presented themselves at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border was one of the first implemented as part of this cruel campaign targeting asylum seekers.”

“In granting class certification, the district court correctly identified the truly expansive reach of the metering policy. Its effects are felt far beyond a singular port of entry but along the entire southern border, needlessly forcing thousands of asylum seekers to make harrowing decisions about how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe during times of utter vulnerability,” said Angelo Guisado, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

In a statement, the American Immigration Council, said “the use of turnbacks to drastically limit the inspection and processing of asylum seekers was one of the earliest in the series of policies and practices the administration has implemented to limit access to the U.S. asylum process and deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.”

Added AIC: “Many people who are turned back from a port of entry are ultimately deprived of any access to the asylum process, while others are forced to wait in Mexico for indeterminate periods of time.”

The lawsuit now covers thousands of asylum seekers unlawfully turned back at ports of entry. The Court’s class certification can be viewed be viewed HERE. (With reports from Ricky Rillera and Jay Domingo)