Biden administration plans to raise student visa fees to cover refugee costs

Photo courtesy of Boise State University

On Jan. 3, the Biden administration proposed a plan to raise fees for various immigrant visa applications. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asked for additional funding and was denied by Congress. 

Now, the USCIS is proposing its first fee changes since 2016. The fee raises apply to temporary work visas and green card applications. The plan has entered a 60-day period for public commentary.

The fee raise will apply to two visas commonly used by students, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and STEM OPT visas. The fees for employment authorization documentation will rise from $410 to $550. 

According to Ruth Prince, director of International Student and Scholar Services, the impact the raise will have on students varies based on their personal financial situation.

“I have a sense it won’t impact that much because you know, this work authorization is a really valuable part of coming here and getting your degree,” Prince said. “But it’s a big increase for sure.”

According to Prince, Boise State has around 300 international students from approximately 75 different countries spread across undergraduate and graduate levels, all the way up to Ph.D.

The initial H-1B visa fee will also jump significantly. The initial fee for an H-1B visa, paid for by the employer, will rise from $470 to $1,595. The H-1B visa is used to hire international professionals in a “special occupation” with a bachelor’s degree or a bachelor’s degree equivalent.  

The costs of the visa may discourage some employers from hiring workers outside of the United States.

The fee raises are proposed to keep costs for refugees and asylum seekers low or free. 

According to Sophie McKinley, legal representative for the International Rescue Committee, Boise has a surprisingly large refugee population, with around 330 Afghans last year on top of other refugees that were resettled to Boise. 

“It’s just not realistic to expect a refugee family a year after getting there with no safety net to pay,” McKinley said.

[Photo of the Simplot Micron Advising and Success Hub (SMASH) building.]
Photo courtesy of Boise State University

The same is true of asylum seekers. According to Angel Venegas, a legal assistant specializing in asylum, the decision to leave is often one of life or death.

“I would say that it’s very important that [fees] stay low, because they really left with nothing. They came just themselves,” Venegas said.

The USCIS has experienced a significant backlog in the past few years, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also partly due to the Trump administration’s attempt to raise fees for those with disabilities entering the U.S. on the former president’s way out of office. 

“We have a ton of people pushing these applications out, trying to get them in before the fees were raised, which didn’t end up happening,” McKinley said. “But what that created was just the surplus citizenship application going to USCIS has created a huge backlog. We still have people who applied for citizenship at that time who are waiting on their interviews.”

According to McKinley, even a relatively modest application fee can quickly stack up for a family. A $50 fee, which was proposed by the Trump administration but never enacted, would be unattainable for most families. Evacuees from Afghanistan are unable to work until their two-year humanitarian parole is up, meaning most arrive without funds and without any way to earn money in the foreseeable future.

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