U.S. Immigration Agency Plans New Fees That Won't Limit Legal Citizenship to 'Wealthy'

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is planning a new fee structure that won't limit legal citizenship to the "very wealthy," the agency recently said.

President Joe Biden's administration will propose a new fee plan for USCIS soon.

"Number one, we believe the immigration system should not be reserved to the wealthy," agency Director Ur Jaddou said in an interview with The Associated Press.

According to reports, USCIS was very close to furloughing almost 70 percent of its 20,000 employees in the summer of 2020 but then, it announced it would end the year with a large surplus.

A temporary hiring freeze, spending controls, and no longer requiring new biometric data for renewal benefits, which began in March 2020, helped USCIS, said Jaddou, the AP reported.

The agency depends mostly on fee collections for its operations, which cost almost $5 billion. When the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, reserves were $1.5 billion, "which is where we want to be" Jaddou said. Fees on wealthier applicants have also supported other operations, such as asylum.

"I do understand what the problems were and how they've been 'resolved' — I want to say that in quotes because we have an unsteady situation, but we're pretty, we're strong," Jaddou said.

USCIS, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, holds a leading role in asylum and refugee resettlement and is important to the immigration system. Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represented a Miami-area district in Congress, said during a hearing on USCIS finances last year that around 70 percent of calls to her office were related to its work.

USCIS, Legal Citizenship, New Fees
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was very close to furloughing almost 70 percent of its 20,000 employees in the summer of 2020 before announcing it would end the year with a large surplus. In this photo, Leon Small, originally from Jamaica, holds a United States flag in a naturalization ceremony, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in New York. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo, File

Trump administration officials have credited last year's return from the financial precipice to higher-than-expected fees collected during the coronavirus pandemic's early months and ending some contracts.

The Trump administration brought major changes to the agency, including expansion of its fraud investigations unit and an emphasis on insisting immigrants be financially self-sufficient to remain in the country.

Jaddou, who was born in the San Diego area and was raised by Mexican and Iraqi immigrant parents, was chief counsel at USCIS during President Barack Obama's second term, working alongside Alejandro Mayorkas, a former USCIS director who is now her boss as Homeland Security secretary. During Donald Trump's presidency, she was director of DHS Watch, a group funded by immigration advocacy group America's Voice. She recited key financial and operational metrics from memory during an interview in October 2020 in which she said a fiscal review should be the new USCIS director's first priority.

On Thursday, USCIS released a list of "accomplishments" for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, including naturalized citizenship for 855,000 people, work-based green cards for 172,000, and help for tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who fled after the end of America's 20-year war in their country.

Wait times for citizenship applications grew last year, as they did during Trump's presidency, to about a year. The agency acknowledged a growing backlog for all benefits that recently topped 8 million but pointed to dropping the biometrics requirement for renewals and other efficiency measures as "significant strides."

More than four months after the Senate approved Jaddou's nomination in a 47-34 vote along party lines, the director is evaluating Trump-era changes, including expansion of the anti-fraud unit and a push to strip citizenship from people who achieved it through lying or fraud.

Jaddou has not reversed a 2018 change in the agency's mission statement that drew heated praise and criticism. Trump appointee Francis Cissna cut reference to the U.S. as a "nation of immigrants."

"It is something we are working on," Jaddou said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USCIS, Legal Citizenship, New Fees
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services depends mostly of fee collections for their operations, which cost almost $5 billion. When the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, reserves were $1.5 billion, “which is where we want to be” agency Director Ur Jaddou said in an interview with The Associated Press. In this photo, new U.S. citizen Wellington Gabriel, originally from Brazil, receives his citizenship certificate from USCIS Los Angeles District Director Anna Chau during a special naturalization ceremony aboard the Battleship USS Iowa Museum on July 1, 2021, in San Pedro, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images