Imagine the road rage that would occur if the Department of Motor Vehicles was to suddenly declare almost two million driver’s licenses invalid, giving drivers 120 days to turn them in, submit to a background check, and purchase their updated licenses for $370. This is the proposal that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is putting into effect for legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for 18 to 30 years. The proposed rule would invalidate their main form of identification, the permanent resident I-551 form, commonly referred to as a “green card.” A 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule change ended September 21.
The federal government’s Immigration and Naturalization Services (now USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security—DHS) issued an estimated 1.9 million green cards without expiration dates to immigrants before 1989. After 1989 an expiration date was added, requiring renewal every ten years. At the present moment, the older cards without expiration dates are still considered valid documents. Homeland Security officials, however, plan to order replacement of the cards “in order to issue more secure forms, update cardholder information, conduct new background checks, and electronically store biometric information.”
“The current security system encompasses a series of checks including the FBI name check … Recent estimates are that the FBI name check process has resulted in a backlog of over 300,000 cases, and that more than 30,000 of these cases have been pending over 33 months. The requirement that between 750,000 and 1.9 million permanent residents file applicaitons for replacement cards within a 120-day window is unrealistic, and will only exacerbate existing security check delays.” [American Association of Immigration Lawyers comment to DHS on proposed rule}
The USCIS doesn’t keep records as to how many Minnesota residents the law would affect, according to Marilu Cabrera of the USCIS Chicago office. John Keller, Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, estimates the number to be more than 10,000. All of these individuals have already paid the initial fee for their green cards and lived in the state for up to thirty years. Some see the proposal and the costly fees as an unfair attempt to balance the DHS budget on the backs of immigrants and doubt whether it will have any success at identifying criminals.
“We’re dealing with folks who are living in the open; they’re not living in the shadows,” says Keller.
Members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) were also strongly critical of the plan in a group letter submitted to the Department of Homeland Security. The letter pointed out that the rule “would turn law-abiding permanent residents into a new class of criminal aliens… by making them subject to prosecution for simply carrying a government-issued document that is valid on its face.”
The ruling may have more to do with padding the USCIS budget than modernizing the country’s immigration system. The Department of Homeland Security will charge $290 for each application to replace a card plus an additional $80 in biometric fees.
Cabrera claims the $370 fee is a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in the United States and a necessary measure to recover agency costs.
“All of the money that we need to pay our employees, to do the FBI background checks, to do all the improvements that the immigrant community asks us to do, all of that costs us money, and it’s not money that is appropriated by Congress,” she adds.
The USCIS claims the proposal, in the long run, has more to do with fighting crime than generating funds. Not only will it allow the government to run an updated criminal background check on permanent residents, it will also cut down on fraud by adding new security features to cards, according to one press release. Since the cards were originally issued, immigration laws have changed. According to AILA, “Due to the change in immigration laws, relatively minor violations, such as shoplifting, public drunkenness or false reporting can render a permanent resident inadmissible or removable from the United States.”
In a strange twist of irony, those who comply with the proposed law may end up paying more than those who simply ignore it. The penalty for failing to re-register a green card is a $100 fine and up to 30 days in jail, less costly than the $370 renewal fee combined with a background check that could turn up deportable offenses. Why would any green card holders with criminal backgrounds willingly turn themselves in?
“We’re asking people to do it for the security of our country,” says Cabrera.
Dan Gordon is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities.