U.S. immigration officials are considering another possible round of fee increases and budget cuts next year, prompting concern among immigrant rights groups.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the new director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said during a visit to Los Angeles on Wednesday that "financial challenges" have caused the agency to consider potential fee increases but no decision has been made.
The agency is facing a $118-million revenue shortfall this year in part because applications for citizenship and skilled worker visas are below projections, according to officials.
Citizenship applications plunged to 58,000 last year from 254,000 the previous year in the Southern California district. Most experts blame the decline on a fee increase of 69% to $675 in 2007.
But immigration officials said the agency is required by law to be self-supporting and that the fee increase was required because a special congressional appropriation to help reduce application backlogs had run out.
To help close the shortfall, Mayorkas said, the agency has requested $206 million from Congress.
"It is financially responsible to examine all of the options that are available . . . as the agency confronts financial challenges," Mayorkas said.
Immigrant advocates said, however, that any additional fee increase would severely hamper legal immigrants from pursuing citizenship.
"Right now the high cost of citizenship is putting the dream of naturalization out of reach of low- and moderate-income legal permanent residents, and any future increase will just make the situation worse," said Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant and former top Los Angeles federal prosecutor, took over as head of the immigration agency last month. He said he would seek to make it "one of the jewels" of the Obama administration through engagement with the public, efficient service and transparent procedures.
As an example, Mayorkas cited the bilingual website launched this week that includes a way for people to get e-mail updates on the status of their applications.
He said the agency had made significant progress in reducing application backlogs, dropping the wait on citizenship applications from more than one year to less than five months.
In addition, the agency is determined to improve integration of new immigrants and citizens, Mayorkas said. Just last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that 13 organizations, including three in California, will receive a total of $1.2 million in federal funding to expand citizenship education and preparation programs.
And the agency is preparing for the possibility of legislation that could result in millions of undocumented immigrants applying for legalization, Mayorkas said. Already, he said, the agency has more than 130 support centers throughout the nation ready to accept more than 6 million applications.
"We are focused on ensuring that we are ready to address comprehensive immigration reform," said Mayorkas.