Immigration fees jump for the first time since 2010, making it tougher for would-be Americans

While the nation continues to focus on illegal immigration as a controversial political issue, every Friday in New York City alone, approximately 500 citizens from around the world officially become Americans after taking an oath at a brief ceremony run by the Department of Homeland Security.
Andrew Lichtenstein | Corbis | Getty Images
While the nation continues to focus on illegal immigration as a controversial political issue, every Friday in New York City alone, approximately 500 citizens from around the world officially become Americans after taking an oath at a brief ceremony run by the Department of Homeland Security.

It just got considerably more expensive to be an immigrant seeking U.S. naturalization.

For the first time since 2010, the Department of Homeland Security hiked a range of administrative fees for citizenship applications — in a few cases more than doubling the costs of key services. Any new petitions filed after Dec. 23 will not be accepted unless they include the higher fees.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency charged with handling immigrant applications, said in a statement the proceeds will help cover detecting fraud, processing cases and a range of other administrative costs, in what USCIS called a "weighted average" price hike of 21 percent.

Experts say the stiffer bureaucratic costs means the path to becoming an American could become a heavier burden for many cash-strapped would-be citizens. However, USCIS justified the price hike by arguing the agency was almost exclusively funded through the fees paid by petitioners, and needed the cash infusion.

Still, USCIS Director Leon Rodríguez said in a statement that the agency was "mindful of the effect fee increases have on many of the customers we serve," which is why it waited so long to increase fees.

Peter Boogaard, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, told CNBC that along with the new fees, "USCIS will also offer a reduced filing fee for certain naturalization applicants with limited means."

Still, "these changes are now necessary to ensure USCIS can continue to serve its customers effectively," he added.

US citizenship 'as soon as possible'

The new pricing could have far-reaching implications for the vast number of immigrants that vie for U.S. citizenship on an annual basis. Each year, USCIS naturalizes hundreds of thousands of new citizens.

Within the last decade, that number has swung between 537,000 and 1 million, data from the Migration Policy Institute showed, with nearly 7 million immigrants having become Americans during that time frame.

In New York alone, there are about 650,000 New Yorkers eligible for naturalization. Roughly 110,500 of them will become eligible for the new partial fee waiver, according to figures provided by the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Glenn Martin Miller, an immigration attorney and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York, said the new fee hike will be a problem for some applicants, even with the reduced filing waivers.

"The percentage increased will be a burden for a family of two," said Miller, citing guidelines that say an immigrant's household income must be at or below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline to qualify for the program.

Nevertheless, history suggests that fee hikes result in a surge of applications, as thousands of potential applicants try to get ahead of the higher costs. Within the last year, more than 700,000 applications were filed, according to USCIS.

At least a few immigration advocates suggest the changing of the guard in the White House. President-elect Donald Trump won support in part because of his call for stricter immigration requirements, and stemming the flood of undocumented citizenship seekers flowing across the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It is hard to say whether that uptick is entirely caused by the upcoming fee increase or whether it is also caused by the anxiety of a Donald Trump presidency," William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told CNBC recently.

"There are a lot of people who have said that they want to become citizens as soon as possible," he said, adding that lengthy backlogs for new cases were unlikely to be resolved by imposing higher fees on applicants.

"Adjudication backlogs are more than just an inconvenience, they have serious repercussions" for individuals waiting on job opportunities and their need for citizenship status, Miller said.