High cost of U.S. citizenship could exact high price

Karen has been in the United States for three years. She has applied for a work permit four times, paying almost $300 each time, including the cost of all the documents required.

Her petition always has been denied. She works – without a permit – as a waitress in Miami, earning $300 a week.

If she were to qualify for citizenship, she wouldn’t hesitate to make the sacrifice, work extra hours and pay the high cost of becoming an American.

If her petition were denied again, it would take a toll on her finances and her spirit.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials have announced their intent to significantly raise the price for services.

If approved by Congress, the price of a work permit would go from $180 to $340. Permanent residency costs would almost triple, from $325 to $905, and citizenship applications would go from $330 to $595.

The immigration service doesn’t receive funds from Congress. It’s supported almost entirely by applicants.

In 2006, there were 823,000 petitions filed for citizenship and 806,000 for permanent residency.

There are approximately 8 million legal residents in the country who are eligible to become U.S. citizens. So immigration service officials are poised to make plenty of money from potential new clients.

Before implementing such changes, agency officials have opened the process to public opinion for 60 days.

They didn’t have to wait long to have the proposed hike come under a storm of criticism.

Immigration advocates complain it’s unacceptable and excessive. It will become one more obstacle for immigrants who want to legalize their status, they say.

It could prevent immigrants from applying for citizenship and make them lose out on the right to vote in 2008.

Excessive? Perhaps. Especially if you’re surviving on the minimum wage. Suppose a person, like Karen the waitress, would be willing to do whatever is necessary to become a legal resident or U.S. citizen, the new price increase wouldn’t benefit her in any way or improve her chances of getting it, for now.

Immigration service officials claim the higher fees will help it provide better service, better treatment and shorter waiting time for the applicants.

It would allow them to hire more personnel and acquire better technology and, subsequently, speed up the process.

They say citizenship claims will be processed in five months instead of seven, and residency in four months instead of six.

The problem is the “new and improved” services wouldn’t kick in until 2009.

Jorge Rivera, an immigration attorney in Miami, said the average wait is a lot longer than the immigration service claims.

“You have to add to those six or seven months the time it takes to do a background check,” he said. “If your name just happens to be similar to that of someone with a criminal background or (you) live in a city with a high number of applicants, you are looking at years and years of waiting for residency or citizenship.”

Members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association are appalled by the proposal to increase the rates.

It’s unacceptable, they say, to promise a 20 percent improvement in processing times by the end of 2009 and ask applicants to pay approximately 66 percent more for services they most likely will not be receiving.

“They are charging immigrants not only to process applications but for the agency’s overhead and for law enforcement activities such as investigations and security checks,” the association added in a written statement.

Members of Congress need to take a serious look at this price hike.

The fees already have been increased – or “adjusted,” as they like to call it – four times in the past decade.

Immigrants from all over the world are willing to pay the high price of becoming Americans, but they shouldn’t have to support a U.S. agency, especially when the great majority already are helping support this country with their work, taxes and as consumers.

The federal government should help subsidize the cost of the immigration process instead of making immigrants pay now for services someone else might receive in the future.

Salinas hosts “Noticieros Univision.” Her Web site is http://www.mariaesalinas.com.

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