Federal court halts changes to fee waiver for citizenship

A federal district court on Monday blocked changes the Trump administration made to the fee waiver process for citizenship from continuing to take effect.

The judge issued a nationwide injunction in the case, which is the latest court ruling to halt a Trump administration immigration initiative and another legal setback for the way the administration has implemented policy changes.

In October, US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it was revising its application for fee waivers, removing a “means-tested benefit” criteria that was previously used to determine if an applicant was exempt from the fees. At the time, USCIS said that income levels used to determine local assistance eligibility vary greatly and therefore are “not an appropriate criteria.”

The organizations that brought the lawsuit argued that the new agency rules would make it harder to qualify for a fee waiver and therefore would “severely curtail naturalization applications,” particularly from low-income applicants.

Judge Maxine Chesney in the Northern District of California ruled that the agency failed to follow notice and comment procedures, a decision that “sends the agency back to the drawing board,” said attorney Jessica Marsden of Protect Democracy, one of the parties that filed the lawsuit challenging the change.

The judge also ruled that the groups that brought the lawsuit had standing to challenge the fee changes, according to Marsden.

The ruling means that applicants will be able to return to using the old form and applicants for citizenship who would have been eligible for a fee waiver “will be freshly eligible again,” Marsden said.

Access to naturalization is “all the more important over the next few months” ahead of the presidential election, she added. CNN has reached out to USCIS for comment.

The groups also challenged the legality of Ken Cuccinelli’s appointment at the agency, but the judge did not rule on that issue Monday, Marsden said. Cuccinelli, who took over as acting director at USCIS in June, is now serving as the acting Department of Homeland Security deputy secretary. At least one other lawsuit is challenging his authority to implement changes at the agency.

The fee waiver changes were set to be implemented on December 2, 2019.

Plaintiffs in the case are the City of Seattle and five naturalization legal service providers: Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), Central American Resource Center of California (CARECEN), Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), OneAmerica, and Self-Help for the Elderly.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Protect Democracy.