(CN) — A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration fee hike planned for this week was blocked by a federal judge in California on Tuesday, offering a reprieve to immigrants seeking asylum and work permits.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California found “serious questions” as to the legitimacy of the fee increase because Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, was not properly appointed to the position.
The department’s final rule, published Aug. 3, proposed to more than double the citizenship application fee, from $700 to $1,710, or $1,610 for online applications, and make it more difficult to qualify for a fee waiver.
Federal officials said the increase was necessary to cover operation costs.
But in a 35-page ruling, Judge White, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote “the court concludes the plaintiffs have met their burden to show the public interest and the balance of the equities tip sharply in favor of enjoining implementation and staying the effective date of the final rule.”
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center not only sought an injunction of the federal government’s fee increase, but also questioned the legitimacy of Wolf and former acting secretary Kevin McAleenan’s appointments.
An independent watchdog group has concluded that neither were properly appointed to their posts following the resignation of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in April 2019.
White noted that when Nielsen resigned, there was no undersecretary — which would have been the next person to take her place.
McAleenan was farther down the line of succession and not eligible, according to the plaintiffs. White agreed, finding the plaintiffs “are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that Mr. Wolf was not validly serving in office” when the fee hike rule was finalized.
“At the very least, plaintiffs have shown that recent events support a finding that there a serious questions going to the merits of their claim that the final rule is contrary to law,” wrote White.
White found “the public has an interest in avoiding overreach of executive power with respect to appointments that require the informed consent of the legislative branch.”
The plaintiffs also say the final rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) which governs administrative agencies and their internal procedures and how they interact with the greater public.
White found the plaintiffs met their burden because the federal government did not disclose data and relied on unexplained data or outright ignored data in the record.
The federal agency argued it seeks “full cost recovery” with the fee hike and filed some information with the court about costs and how the agency spends its funding.
“While this might provide a general roadmap, nothing in that discussion provides data showing why USCIS’ fiscal situation has become so dire,” wrote White.
White noted Homeland Security has not been gathering data over the years on price increases and how those would impact applications for immigration benefits.
White also agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that Homeland Security’s reliance on statistics or data on prior fee increases is not an accurate comparison because the latest proposed fee increase combines price hikes with “a correspondent decrease in the ability to obtain waivers of fees, a variable not relevant to past fee changes.”
The agency failed to show why it needed to make such a significant departure from past practice on asylum fees, White found.
He said the Immigrant Legal Resource Center proved the final rule would cause irreparable harm, because it would “prevent vulnerable and low-income applicants from applying for immigration benefits, will block access to humanitarian protections, and will expose those populations to further danger.”
White barred the Trump administration from using or enforcing the new fee hike rule and said the preliminary injunction would remain in place until a trial.
Tuesday’s ruling from White was applauded far and wide by immigration advocacy groups.
Immigrant Legal Resource Center in a tweet said, “Thank you to our amazing partners and everyone who joined the critical fight against a #wealthtest for citizenship.”
Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.