A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s plans to increase fees for immigrants seeking to become US citizens and others applying for asylum.
The decision is a setback to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees the immigration system and has been struggling financially in recent months. USCIS, which is funded primarily through fees from immigration applications, canceled plans to furlough nearly 70% of its staff in August.
The rule blocked by US District Judge Jeffrey White in Northern California was set to take effect on Friday and would have established a new $50 fee for asylum-seekers while also raising the prices for immigrants applying to become US citizens to upward of $1,170, a jump from $640, among many other changes.
White, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, found the policy would harm immigrants with low incomes and that it violated parts of the Administrative Procedures Act. He approved a request from a group of immigration advocacy organizations to stay the implementation of the fee changes pending a final ruling.
“Plaintiffs persuasively argue that the public interest would be served by enjoining or staying the effective date of the Final Rule because if it takes effect, it will prevent vulnerable and low-income applicants from applying for immigration benefits, will block access to humanitarian protections, and will expose those populations to further danger,” White wrote.
USCIS said it was reviewing the decision and had no further comment.
The judge also notably found issues with the way Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, had been appointed to his job. White documented problems with the succession from former DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to former acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan, who later gave way to Wolf. White said the plaintiffs were likely to show that Wolf “was not validly serving in office” when the rule was issued.
Immigration experts said the ruling could have both immediate and long-term effects.
Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the ruling could force USCIS to go through with furloughs and “should those furloughs occur, it will interrupt nearly all permanent and temporary immigration processing.”
At the same time, she noted that the ruling’s focus on the issues with the appointments of McAleenan and Wolf could force future changes: “The court's conclusion that McAleenan's and Wolf's appointments likely violated federal law could set off a domino effect of courts striking down policies signed by these officials.”
The rule’s inclusion of a fee for asylum-seekers was met with criticism from politicians and immigrant advocacy organizations. The US was set to join the ranks of Iran, Fiji, and Australia in charging a fee for protections.
USCIS officials said the higher application fees were needed to recoup money and remain functioning.
The reasons for the funding shortage at the agency have been up for debate — agency officials have cited a massive decline in immigration applications due to the pandemic, while immigrant advocates and experts argue that the Trump administration’s restrictive policies have played a large part.