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Trump’s budget proposes hiking application fees for legal immigrants

Charging immigrants 10 percent more, for “deficit reduction,” is something Trump might be able to do without Congress.

Advocacy Groups Aid Immigrants With Citizenship And Legal Issues
Immigrant families, like this Canadian woman and her Dominican husband seeking citizenship in 2013, would have to pay 10 percent more in application fees under a proposal buried in President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget.
John Moore/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal asks for billions of dollars to “finish” building 722 miles of wall along the US-Mexico border. Buried in the budget summary is a proposal to make legal immigrants help pay for it.

A budget “fact sheet” on border security, released as part of the Trump administration’s proposal Monday, suggests adding a 10 percent surcharge to immigration filing fees for the purposes of “deficit reduction.”

While the surcharge isn’t mentioned in the short summary on the Department of Homeland Security in the main budget document, the data tables at the end of the document include a line for “Establish an immigration services surcharge.” The “surcharge” is assumed to bring in $466 million for the government in 2020, and about $5 billion over the next 10 years.

Immigration filing fees, which immigrants pay when they apply for or renew temporary legal status, permanent legal status, or citizenship, already fund most of the budget of US Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency that adjudicates most immigration applications. What Trump is proposing is different: making immigrants pay more money so that the rest of the government can spend more.

Half a billion dollars a year doesn’t do much to mitigate a projected $900 billion-and-growing deficit, which soared after the federal government passed a tax cut bill in 2017 (and did not reduce spending to meet it). But to immigrants who already have to pay several hundred dollars for an application — and who often have to file multiple applications, to renew their immigration status or become green card holders or citizens — it’s an added burden.

The budget fact sheet justifies the proposal by saying “those who relocate to the US benefit significantly from the Nation’s opportunities.” The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t yet released its own budget documents for 2020; US Citizenship and Immigration Services referred Vox to the Office of Management and Budget, which did not respond to a request for comment.

In general, the president’s budget is something of a fantasy document; Congress is responsible for appropriating funds to the executive branch, and Congress doesn’t give the White House what it wants even when the two are controlled by the same party.

But the “immigration services surcharge” proposal, vague though it is, is different — because USCIS doesn’t need congressional authorization to raise its fees. It just needs to write a regulation. The public is allowed to comment on a proposal before it’s finalized, but the government doesn’t have to make any changes just because the public doesn’t like them.

Current fee levels date back to a 2016 regulation issued under President Barack Obama. The Trump administration is expected to release its own fee regulation in the near future. It’s probably not going to get through the entire regulatory process in seven months, as it would have to do for the “immigration services surcharge” to be in place by the beginning of fiscal year 2020.

But the “surcharge” proposal might be a signal that a fee hike is coming. It certainly indicates the Trump administration isn’t terribly worried that high costs might prevent some eligible immigrants from becoming citizens — or might prevent some immigrants from maintaining their legal status, period.

Trump is, yet again, making wall demands that Congress is unlikely to accept

The mysterious immigration fee surcharge is important because it reflects something the administration might be able to do without Congress. In most other regards, the president’s budget is important as a list of demands to Congress.

So Trump’s stubborn insistence on billions of dollars for wall funding and other immigration enforcement in the 2020 budget is certainly notable, because it comes just weeks after he lost a showdown with Congress over exactly that issue.

President Trump partially shut down the federal government in December because Congress couldn’t agree to give him $5 million (later raised to $5.7 million) to build border barriers in fiscal year 2019; he agreed to reopen the government a month later to allow Congress to negotiate a deal, only to sign a bill that gave him $1.375 billion in wall money. (Trump immediately signed an emergency declaration that the White House promised would unlock $7.5 billion more in funds from the departments of Justice and Defense, but most of those funds haven’t formally been dedicated to wall money yet.)

Now he’s back to asking Congress for $8.6 billion in wall money in 2020: $5 billion as part of the DHS budget, and $3.2 billion in military construction fees under the Department of Defense. (The $3.2 billion is mentioned in the “Border Security” fact sheet, but not in the summary of DOD priorities in the main budget document.)

An administration official told Politico that between the 2020 budget, the 2019 authorization and emergency declaration, and the barriers the administration has built or is building from 2017 and 2018 funds, Trump would be able to boast the completion of 722 miles of barriers in time for the 2020 presidential election. The administration official described this as “finishing the wall.”

There’s no indication that just because Trump asked for as much money in 2020 as he conspicuously failed to get in 2019, Congress is likely to relent. But it makes it more likely Trump will be disappointed or enraged if Congress gives him less.

Trump is still overspending on immigration detention and asking Congress to back him up

The 2020 budget asks Congress to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enough money to detain an average of 54,000 immigrants a day from October 2019 to September 2020.

Like the wall demand, that’s an even more aggressive version of something Congress has already rejected; the administration wanted detention funded for an average of 52,000 immigrants in 2019, and got funding for an average of a little over 45,000.

But unlike the wall, the Trump administration has shown willingness simply to go over budget on detention and ask Congress — or the rest of the federal government — to fill the gap. They’ve asked Congress to make up the difference with supplemental funding and “reprogrammed” money from elsewhere in the government.

Congress funded ICE to detain an average of 40,520 people a day for fiscal year 2018. By October 2018, it was detaining 44,631; by February 2019, when Congress was negotiating a new funding level, it was detaining 48,747.

The 2019 funding deal (which Congress reached in February) was supposed to force ICE to get back in line with congressional expectations. It gave ICE the money to detain an average of 45,000 or so immigrants through the end of the fiscal year on September 30; to meet that average, given ICE’s starting point, congressional staff estimated it would have to come back down to 40,520 by the end of September.

That has not happened. As of March 6, the Daily Beast has reported, ICE was detaining 50,049 people.

Unless ICE starts detaining a lot fewer people, it’s going to run through the February funds long before September 30, potentially setting up another fight with Congress if it asks for supplemental money. But by asking for even more money in 2020 than it did in 2019, the administration is showing no indication that it wants to slow the growth of ICE detention — and is betraying a certain confidence that it’s going to find some extra funds somewhere this year, rather than having to reduce detention by 20 percent in 2019 only to expand it 35 percent in 2020.

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