Immigrants sue to force INS to waive citizenship fees

Government Opinion (Published)
Keywords: INS
Source: Yahoo
Published: Thursday December 30, 8:12 am
Author: Mary Hladky (Miami Daily Business Review)
Posted on 12/31/1999 01:43:08 PST by JZoback
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Mary Hladky (Miami Daily Business Review) --

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is thwarting the ability of poor and disabled immigrants to become American citizens by refusing to waive naturalization fees, according to a federal court suit.

Three organizations that represent poor people and immigrants are seeking class-action status for their Dec. 22 suit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami. They allege that hundreds of people have been harmed by the INS's defiance of its own policies that allow fee waivers for people who can't afford them.

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The fees now total $250, an amount well out of the reach of many people seeking to become citizens, said Randall Berg, executive director of the Miami-based Florida Justice Institute.

"It is a major complaint that has been heard throughout South Florida," Berg said. "Something needed to be done."

INS spokeswoman Maria Elena Garcia said INS officials have not seen the suit. Garcia said she could not comment because the INS does not discuss pending litigation.

The 38-page complaint, filed by lawyers with Florida Legal Services Inc., the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center as well as the Justice Institute, contends the INS has maintained a "systematic and Miami district-wide policy" of refusing to grant or, in some instances, even acknowledge requests for fee waivers. The INS also is not explaining to applicants why the waivers were denied, the suit claims.

The issue has become more critical since increases in naturalization fees took effect Jan. 15. The boost was substantial, to $225 from $95. Applicants also must pay a $25 fingerprinting fee.

As a result, poor, disabled and elderly people "are denied the opportunity to become United States citizens solely because of their poverty," the suit alleges.

The fee increase apparently was intended to help cover the cost of providing services at no charge to immigrants who can't afford to pay. The suit says that about $28 of the new $225 fee goes for this purpose. One of the named plaintiffs, 62-year-old Nildo Diaz, a lawful permanent U.S. resident since 1980, served a 10-year jail sentence in Cuba as a political prisoner. After arriving in the U.S., he made his living repairing watches, but quit in 1997 because of permanent tremors in his hand.

He now lives on $220 a month in Social Security benefits. Although he wants to become a U.S. citizen, he can't afford the $250 in fees, the suit says.

In September, Diaz completed an application for naturalization, submitted information on his income and asked for a fee waiver. On Nov. 1, his application was returned with a letter saying it could not be accepted because the fee had not been paid.

The suit seeks no money damages for the plaintiffs. Rather, it requests a court injunction compelling the INS to follow existing guidelines and policies for granting fee waivers, and to re-evaluate waiver requests that have been denied since Jan. 15.