Democrats aiming to roll back planned hike in citizenship fee

Bill would authorize Congress to appropriate funds for Homeland Security agency to process citizenship applications.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky unveiled legislation Wednesday that would prevent the Homeland Security Department's Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from almost doubling citizenship application fees.

USCIS announced the fee increase -- from $330 to $595 -- earlier in the year. USCIS funds itself largely through user fees, but Obama and the other sponsors said the escalating fees are unfair to poor, legal immigrants.

"There are 9 million legal residents that nobody denies their eligibility to be naturalized," Obama said. The application process should not create "a tiered system where wealthy immigrants have no problem, where poor immigrants, who work just as hard and who have just as much right to the American dream, are locked out," he said.

The bill would authorize Congress to appropriate funds for USCIS to process citizenship applications, an idea Gutierrez said would boost oversight of the agency. In Congress, he said, oversight authority is "obliterated" for agencies that are self-funded. "We say, 'Oh, we don't give them any money. C'est la vie. Good!'"

Gutierrez said the lack of oversight gives agency heads leeway to fudge the backlog of waiting applicants. USCIS is seeking comment on its proposed fee increases, which could become final in June.

The sponsors said they do not want their measure linked to a more controversial comprehensive immigration bill that would offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The comprehensive bill is expected to be introduced within a week.

"We think this is going to be a no-brainer," Obama said of the citizenship application-fee bill. "What we want to be sure we don't do is to get what should be a straightforward process of moving people who want to become citizens along, tied up in a broader, and in some areas more controversial, discussion of how we handle those who are not here legally."

Obama said he planned to be a co-sponsor of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, noting that questions regarding employment verification provisions that he raised a year ago have been resolved. Last year, Obama said he did not want to subject employers and workers to an electronic employment verification system that he said was unworkable.

Gutierrez was more upbeat than Obama about the chances of enacting a sweeping immigration bill this year, saying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., have set Aug. 3 deadlines for passing a comprehensive immigration bill.

With regard to the citizenship application fee bill, Gutierrez said it does not have to be passed by June if USCIS backs off the fee increase.