Advocates urge immigrants to act fast, as higher citizenship fees loom

Published Nov. 27, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Immigration experts and advocates in Arizona are urging people to file their paperwork as soon as possible as federal agencies eye steeper processing fees across a broad range of citizenship forms.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced plans this month to raise the fees it charges for everything from applying for naturalization to renewing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, from asylum requests to petitions to suspend removals from the U.S.

Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said the increases, which average 21% across all forms, are need to cover the “true cost” of business for the agency, which is almost entirely dependent on fees for its budget. Without the new prices, the agency said it could be underfunded by $1.3 billion a year.

But advocates who guide people through the various applications fear that the fee increase will prevent people from applying.

“This is not good business. This is not good American values. And it’s going to bring a lot of hardships to communities that already live in hardships,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona.

Among changes proposed by the agency, the cost of filing for naturalization would rise 83%, from $640 to $1,170, while DACA recipients would see a 55% increase in the cost of a renewal application, from $495 to $765. The agency has also proposed a new $50 fee for refugees granted asylum, and a whopping increase in the cost of applying for delayed removal, from $285 to $1,800.

In addition to paying for current services, the agency said the additional money is needed to more thoroughly vet applicants through social media screens and in-person interviews, shorten processing times and hire more employees to handle the workload. The agency also plans on hiring more than 6,400 employees with the money.

“USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis,” Cuccinelli said in a news release.

The agency, which got just under $143 million in funding from Congress in fiscal 2019, last raised fees in 2016. Cuccinelli said it relies on fees for 96% of its budget.

Organizations advocating for immigration reform said the USCIS’ plan sends “a clear message that Americans value citizenship.”

“It’s a balancing act that USCIS has to do with these applications,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies. The fees, she said, have “been underpriced for a very long time.”

“It’s about time to adjust those fees so that they can avoid delays,” she said.

Rising application fees are nothing new: Those applying for naturalization in 1989 were charged $60, less than one-tenth the current fee.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said that while the increases are not unique to any administration, she questioned the need for some of the expanded services under the latest proposal.

“Part of the fee increase would’ve happened under any administration, under any policy regime, as costs go up over time. But part of the fee increase is probably the result of policy decisions that the administration is making,” Gelatt said.

She also noted that the proposal calls for transferring $207.6 million from USCIS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Matthew O’Brien, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the increase a reasonable approach by an agency that operates largely on the money it raises. The higher fees also indirectly help deter threats from abroad, he said.

“Charging responsible filing fees for immigration benefits sends a clear message that Americans value membership in our civic community and we will not carelessly hand out that privilege to those who are not willing to pay their own way,” he said in an emailed statement.

But Falcon said current fees already present a hurdle to applicants otherwise “eager” to complete the process.

“We’re helping people as much as we can to get in before the deadline, both at the DACA level and at the citizenship level,” she said.

Falcon and other members of her nonprofit are leading education campaigns about the fees, while encouraging people to oppose the increase. A public comment period that runs through Dec. 16 had attracted 4,256 comments by Wednesday.

Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney, said he has advised his clients to naturalize as soon as they are eligible.

“Waiting for a better time doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the horizon,” Reyes said.

Preterm births inched up in Arizona, but 2018 rate still beat nation

Published Nov. 7, 2019 on Cronkite News.

WASHINGTON – Rising rates of preterm births in 30 states – Arizona included – are a sign that health care providers are “failing our many mothers and babies,” maternal and infant health advocates said Thursday.

Their comments came as the March of Dimes released its 2019 report card that showed a slight increase in the number of Arizona babies born too soon, from 9.3% in 2017 to 9.5% in 2018. That was still better than the national average, which also inched up last year to just over 10% of babies in the U.S. born preterm.

Arizona is one of 11 states to earn a “C+” on the report card released this week for its overall performance. But it is also one of the states where the gap between the overall preterm birth rate and rates for racial and ethnic groups was wider than the national average.

Breann Westmore, government affairs and advocacy director for March of Dimes in Arizona, said her chapter realizes there is work to be
done, but she is still “extremely proud” of the state’s improvements in recent years. Preterm births have fallen from 10.2% in 2008.

“I want to make it clear: We understand there’s still a problem,” Westmore said. “It’s not that we think getting a C is really exciting. We definitely are excited about the changes we see that will impact making that grade better.”

Among the changes helping Arizona’s standings is a recently passed health reporting law and the state’s expansion of Medicaid, said Stacey Stewart, March of Dimes president and CEO. The law requires the state Department of Health Services to review maternal mortality reporting protocol and recommend changes.

Although Stewart said both factors are promising signs, it is still on states such as Arizona to meet the rest of mothers’ and infants’ needs.

“The fact of the matter is that we as a country are just not doing well by moms and babies,” Stewart said. “That’s why we consider this to be the most dangerous developed nation to give birth.”

The report considers any birth before 37 weeks of gestation a preterm birth, which it said can lead to long-term health problems and even infant death. But while preterm birth rate in Arizona was 9.3% in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there wer just 5.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births that year – or an infant mortality rate of 0.57%.

-Cronkite News graphic by Kailey Broussard

The report found that preterm birth rates worsened in Maricopa, Mojave, Pima and Pinal counties, while improving in Yavapai and Yuma counties. Black and Native American mothers in the state saw the highest rates of preterm births.

Westmore said the state chapter has been focused no reviewing morbidity data and working with partner organizations to address implicit biases in care provided to mothers.

A state law signed in April established a 13-member committee to recommend enhancements for data collection and reporting for the Arizona Maternal Mortality Review, as well as release a report on maternal deaths in the state. That report is due to the state legislature at the end of the year, according to Gov. Doug Ducey’s website.

The state also received a $10.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve health outcomes for all women in the state.

Arizona’s March of Dimes organization and partners such as the Department of Health Services and the Public Health Association are also exploring ways to reduce toxic stress among expectant mothers, which may contribute to higher rates of complications during and after pregnancy.

“We are not surprised by the grade because we’re constantly looking at and evaluating the data,” Westmore said. “We know the progress we have made here.”

Six states and Puerto Rico got an “F” on the March of Dimes report card. Oregon had the lowest preterm birth rate, at 7.8%, while Mississippi saw the highest rates, at 14.2%.

The March of Dimes aims to lower the national preterm birth rate to 8.1% by next year to curb the leading cause of infant death in the U.S. The organization has asked that states extend comprehensive Medicaid coverage for all women to at least one year after birth; establish mortality review committees; and offer group prenatal care enhanced reimbursements.

Pedestrian Deaths

Pedestrian deaths are at their highest level in almost 30 years.

The trend disproportionately affects lower income areas and Sun Belt cities. We interviewed experts and families affected in Phoenix and Los Angeles about this trend, as well as what can be done to make streets more walkable. I contributed data reporting to my team’s story in the Los Angeles Times and co-produced a six-minute investigative segment that’s been featured on PBS Newshour. I also spoke about the piece on Arizona Horizon,