Touring musicians, historians, and other groups are warning of potentially unforeseen negative effects on business and research from massive immigration fee increases the federal government is proposing this year.
The feedback came as part of a public comment period on the proposed fee hikes from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which closed earlier this week.
The more than 7,700 comments on the proposal illustrate the extent to which fees charged by the Department of Homeland Security unit would impact a wide set of businesses and individuals beyond just immigrants and their employers.
The proposal released in January would be the first time USCIS, whose operations are funded almost entirely by user fees, has updated its cost structure since 2016. A fee rule issued by the Trump administration in 2020 was blocked by two federal courts.
Fees would go up by a weighted average of 40% across the board under the proposal, mostly borne by applicants for employment-based visas.
But for international musicians who already face a costly and time-consuming process to secure a visa for US appearances, the fee increases may mean they are no longer able to tour in the US at all, the UK Musicians Union wrote in a comment posted on the Regulations.gov site.
The proposal would mean that 72% of the union’s members with current US touring plans would no longer be able to do so, the group wrote. The proposed fee increases reveal “a fundamental mis-understanding of the very delicate ecosystem of the global arts and entertainment business and its ability to afford these increases,” it said.
Once the public comment period closes, USCIS reviews all properly submitted feedback and subsequently addresses those comments in a future final rule, an agency spokesman said.
Director Ur Jaddou said after the release of the proposed fee hikes that the agency must improve customer service and support its humanitarian mission. A proposed $600 asylum fee for new employment-based petitions would push the cost of that humanitarian work onto business immigration users.
Stifling Cultural Activity
Long delays for securing visas already force many international musicians to miss out on potential tours in the US, wrote Deborah Annets, chief executive of the Independent Society of Musicians.
“The proposed fee increases will stifle international cultural activity, put US-based jobs at risk, and have a negative economic effect on communities supported by arts events,” she wrote.
The group recommended that price increases be phased in gradually, and for the agency to ditch a separate, proposed cap on the number of applicants allowed under a single visa petition. It also urged USCIS to provide an option for a three-year visa for high-demand artists in order to lower administrative burdens, even if there are gaps between appearances.
Performing arts organizations still reeling financially from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can’t simply manage the fee increases with higher ticket prices, wrote the Public Theater, which operates Shakespeare in the Park in New York City’s Central Park.
“The proposed changes will be catastrophic not only for the performing arts organizations who intend to produce work with international artists but for international artists hoping to secure work opportunities their own country may not offer,” the Theater wrote.
USCIS also didn’t appear to realistically consider the impact that fee increases would have on small employers, including nonprofits and arts organizations, the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association told USCIS in their comments.
“Few employers may be able to absorb the additional business costs,” the groups said.
The proposed fee rule reflects a view that businesses are better able to bear the costs of immigration fees than individual applicants, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
“It does make you wonder if the administration was imagining a big business that can easily absorb the costs like a big tech company sponsoring a lot of workers, rather than a small local theater or small business,” she said. “Certainly we’re going to see fee increases in the final rule and perhaps sizeable ones. It’s a question of how that’s distributed.”
Genealogy Research Paralyzed
The fee proposal would also imperil access to documents needed for the repatriation of veterans’ remains, Annette Burke Lyttle, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists, told USCIS. Those documents are often the only way to identify the next of kin for immigrants who died in battle.
Countries with large Jewish populations during the Holocaust have allowed descendants of those who fled the Nazis to apply for citizenship. But records at the USCIS Genealogy Program can also make or break dual citizenship cases, meaning fee hikes could hinder applicants’ efforts to have their legal rights recognized, she wrote.
The fee-for-service program was established via regulation in 2008 to offer researchers timely access to historical immigration and naturalization records like alien registration forms and visa files from the early to mid-twentieth century. But many users say the agency is unable to track down documents or takes years to fulfill requests.
The agency is proposing to increase fees for genealogical records by at least 54% despite no demonstrable improvement in productivity since the last fee increase, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies wrote.
The fee increases rub salt in the wound of researchers who found the USCIS Genealogy Program to be plagued with delays and record management issues, Rich Venezia, a professional genealogist and member of the AGP advocacy committee, told Bloomberg Law in an interview. A request that currently costs $65 could range anywhere from $240 to $340 under the new fee system, he said.
“It’s going to essentially price people out of the program,” he said.
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