Federal Judge Blocks Citizenship Application Fee Increase

Federal Judge Blocks Citizenship Application Fee Increase

Post by Richard Falvo. Colgate Class of 2023.

Recently, a California federal judge placed a halt on a round of application fee increases for immigrants seeking citizenship in the United States. Under the proposed changes set forth by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the fee to apply for citizenship would have increased from $640 to $1,160, an increase of 81% (Malagón, 2020). In addition, according to the Miami Herald, “The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Rule included an unprecedented $50 fee for asylum-seekers” (Shoer Roth, 2020). It is worth noting that asylum-seekers, or those who have been effectively forced out of their home country due to war, persecution, or other negative circumstances, have never been required to pay an application fee for citizenship in the United States. Initially planned to go into effect on October 2, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White granted an injunction on September 29 to temporarily block the new proposals. The Trump administration has 90 days to appeal the decision.

This attempt to drastically increase application fees reflects the effort of the Trump administration to lower immigrant flows to the United States by increasing the tangible cost of migration, which has been rising steadily over the previous decades. Below, Table 1 depicts fee layout for various types of applications pertaining to citizenship and authorizations in the United States. According to the table, the standard naturalization fee was $320 in 2004. By 2016, that fee has doubled. If the proposed changes by the DHS were to go into effect, the fee for nonmilitary naturalization will have increased by more than 260% (Bolter & Meissner, 2019). Table 1 also shows the sharp increase in the fee for obtaining permanent resident status, or a “green card.” From 2004 to 2016, this fee increased over 260% as well. Finally, one should notice the constant lack of fees associated with applying for asylum status in the United States. From 2004 to 2016, this fee remained at $0, as it has throughout history. However, under the aforementioned proposals put forward by the Trump administration, this fee would increase to $50, a potentially large and profound sum for asylum-seekers.

While there are numerous intangible factors that contribute to the decision to migrate, such as one’s well-being, levels of optimism, life aspirations, and levels of risk tolerance, two of the most profound tangible factors in play happen to be the physical costs associated with migrating, as well as immigration policy. As Simpson points out, “people often have to pay significant fees for visas and resident permits to gain legal entry.” In addition, “Immigration policy plays a significant role in limiting the flow of international migrants. Countries which are known to be relatively easy to enter may be more attractive to potential migrants. In contrast, when countries enforce their immigration policy, the costs of migrating may become sufficiently high to discourage migration” (Simpson, 2017).

Following this notion, the proposed changes to application fees by the DHS would, in theory, increase the physical costs of migrating to the United States, especially considering the fact that the proposed increase for nonmilitary naturalization fees was 80% greater than that of 2016. From the start of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has taken a strict stance when it comes to immigration, in terms of both documented and undocumented immigration. Therefore, it could very well be the case that the incentive of migrants to immigrate to the United States has decreased during that time. After all, 2019 marked the first time since the Great Recession that multiple years have passed consecutively without an increase in the share of immigrants relative to the population of the United States.

If the proposed application fee hikes are enacted, one of the potential unintended consequences is an increase in the likelihood of trafficking. As pointed out in The Economics of Immigration, “Immigrants who are not able to bear the costs of migrating, either legally or illegally, may make a deal with an employer or smuggler who promises to help them migrate in exchange for the immigrant working to pay off the debt” (Bansak et al., 2015, p. 31). Referred to as “debt bondages,” the conditions which migrants are put through to “pay off the debt” are often inhumane: “They [migrants] may be forced to work indefinitely as prostitutes, in factories and restaurants, or as household slaves” (32).

While immigration is commonly considered a political issue in the United States, its economic factors and implications should not be taken lightly. In the case of increased citizenship application fees, the effects of such a policy could contribute to an already-stagnating immigrant share of the U.S. population, as well as make the journey for migrants who decide to immigrate more challenging than it already is.


Bansak, C., Simpson, N. B., & Zavodny, M. (2015). The Economics of Immigration. Routledge.

Bier, D. (2020, September 19). Immigrant share of the U.S. population by year [Graph]. Cato Institute. https://infogram.com/figure-1-immigrant-share-of-the-us-population-by-year-1h8n6mr79kz94xo

Bolter, J., & Meissner, D. (2019, December). USCIS Fees by Year of Change and Select Proposed Fee Increases [Table]. Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/commentary_photos/USCIS-Fee_Commentary-December-T1.png

Malagón, E. (2020, September 29). Federal judge blocks increase in fees for citizenship, immigration applications. Chicago Sun-Times. https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/9/29/21494628/chicago-immigration-fees-increase-judge-injunction

Shoer Roth, D. (2020, October 1). U.S. reverses course on massive immigration and citizenship fee hikes after court injunction. Miami Herald. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/immigration/article246159245.html

Simpson, N. B. (2017). Demographic and economic determinants of migration. IZA World of Labor. https://wol.iza.org/articles/demographic-and-economic-determinants-of-migration/long

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