Almost from the beginning of his tenure as Director of USCIS back in 2009, Alejandro Mayorkas has been warning that a fee increase was imminent. Today, the other shoe finally dropped, as USCIS announced a weighted fee increase of approximately ten percent on applications and petitions submitted to the agency. The fee for naturalization applications, however, remains unchanged at $595, and some application fees had modest price reductions, such as filing a fiancée petition. Two other carefully watched applications will see increases: adjustment of status (green card) applications will rise from $930 to $985 and employment authorization documents will see a proposed increase from $340 to $380. These increases will likely have a significant impact on certain individuals who will have more difficulty saving enough for the application fee.

USCIS also proposed creating new fees for processing visas granted by the Department of State, registering with the agency as a civil surgeon (a doctor authorized to conduct required medical exams) and registering as a regional center for investment visas.

It’s important to remember that it could have been much worse. Because approximately 90% of USCIS operating costs are currently fee-based—by statute USCIS is expected to recover its costs through fees—declining revenues since 2008 have led to budget shortfalls. The fee increases announced today are modest compared to the massive hike of two years ago when the naturalization fee rose 69%, and the costs of applying for adjustment of status rose approximately 178%.

Unlike the billions of additional funds allocated to questionable border security ventures, such as SBInet, Congress provides USCIS with very little funding. Only in the last few years has there been a recognition that applicants shouldn’t bear the burden of all the agency’s costs, especially when those costs further a public good, like providing funds to pay for the processing of asylum, refugee, and military benefits. Similarly, the Obama administration has recognized that the costs of expanding E-Verify shouldn’t be underwritten by applicants, as E-verify is generally seen as a component of enforcement, rather than benefits.

In a time when there hasn’t been much good news on the immigration front, the freeze on the naturalization fee is a welcome indication that USCIS, and the Obama administration, are listening to immigrants and their advocates. There have been plenty of meetings in which people all over the country stressed how important it was to keep naturalization fees within reach. If the U.S. is serious about continuing to welcome immigrants and their contributions, then everything we can do to make the process easier —including keeping fees low — is critical to our success.

This isn’t just about making people feel welcome. As the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy has noted, immigration is an important aspect of our economic future and out national security. If we spent even a tenth of the money we spend on enforcement to support the benefits side of our immigration system, we could drastically improve our immigration system by keeping fees lower and improving services for all.

Photo by NOLA