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Removal of benefits from immigration fee waivers could impact low income applicants

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is seeking to remove the means-tested benefits option from its fee waiver request. The proposed change was put up for public comment on the Federal Register with an end-date for comments of May 6.

The USCIS considers waiving a fee for certain applications or petitions when the applicant or petitioner clearly demonstrates that he or she is unable to pay the fee. Those seeking to apply for citizenship or renew a green card (among other situations) can have expensive application fees waived if they fill out the I-912 form.

Up till now, individuals and households had to meet one of three criteria to be eligible for a fee waiver. They either had to prove that their income was at or below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline, had receipt of means-tested public benefits from federal, state or local programs or suffered financial hardship.

Other legal specialists are skeptical of the USCIS’ claim that the main reason for the change is to overcome discrepancies in eligibility requirements between states.

“I feel that the argument for the variation of assessments for means-tested benefits in different states as the basis for removing it is weak,” said Diego Bonesatti, director of legal services at Michigan United in Detroit.

“While the Federal Poverty Guidelines set different incomes for the lower 48 states than for Hawaii and Alaska, there can be pretty major differences in cost of living between, say, San Francisco, CA and Birmingham, AL, even though their states are deemed to be comparable.”

The rule will also require applicants to submit an IRS tax transcript, which they will have to do online and pay for, instead of submitting a copy of their federal 1040s and W-2s.

“Why do this?” Bonesatti asked. “These are small hurdles, but for a household that doesn’t have Internet and has limited time, these steps are additional duck bites that they’ll have to endure.”

The USCIS also insists that fee waivers are a burden on its services since it relies on services fees to adjudicate and screen applicants.

“USCIS loses hundreds of millions of dollars each year in revenue due to fee waivers granted, forcing the applicants and petitioners who do not get fee waivers to absorb the costs by paying higher fees,” Collins said.

According to Bonesatti, however, the USCIS does not mention other costs not associated with fee waivers that decreases its revenue every year.

“They do not mention that 90,000 or so foreign-born members of the Armed Services get to file their N-400s for naturalization for free,” he said. “The costs generated by asylum seekers, who are not charged a fee, are also covered by other immigrants paying a filing fee.”

The current I-912 form on the USCIS’s website retains the means-tested benefits option. The USCIS has not indicated when the change will take effect.

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