According to recent reports, the Trump Administration is considering charging $50.00 to apply for asylum in the United States. If the purpose of this fee is to dissuade people from seeking asylum, it is a stupid and cruel idea, which may violate our treaty obligations. If the purpose is to raise money to help cover the costs of the asylum process, it is merely a stupid idea.

Here is what we know so far. The Trump Administration is working on a new regulation that would require applicants who are already residing in the United States to pay $50.00 to apply for asylum. "The fee would not apply to those who claim a fear of persecution at ports of entry or those who apply for the protections while in deportation proceedings." "There would be no waiver of the fee for those who cannot afford to pay the $50." Currently, of course, there is no fee to file for asylum.

Why is this idea so dumb?

If the fee is meant to deter people from filing for asylum, few will be dissuaded by such a low amount. The only applicants who would potentially be blocked by this fee are those who are particularly vulnerable, such as children. In most such cases, non-profit organizations would probably cover the costs, but this will be burdensome for the non-profits, many of which are already suffering from insufficient resources. So in practical terms, this fee would block few people from asylum, but it would create a further strain on organizations that assist asylum seekers.

To the extent that anyone is blocked from asylum by this new policy, the fee might violate our treaty obligations (not to mention our moral responsibility to people fleeing harm). For example, Article 25 of the Refugee Convention contemplates "exceptional treatment" for indigent asylum seekers, and so people blocked by the fee would have grounds for a suit against the federal government.

Also, the idea of charging a nominal fee to people fleeing harm is just plain cruel. Many asylum seekers have suffered past harm, and they are already fearful and traumatized. The legal changes and malicious rhetoric of the Trump Administration have already increased the stress level for these vulnerable people. A filing fee would be one more indicator of how unwelcome asylum applicants are.

In addition, asylum seekers often must wait for many months before they can obtain permission to work in the United States. Talk to most asylum seekers, and you will hear stories of great financial difficulty. Many have lost property and assets at home, and are living off their savings or the goodwill of family and friends. A filing fee under these circumstances is one more strain on people who are often in dire financial straits.

Finally, asylum seekers already pay plenty of fees. Although they do not pay directly for the asylum form, they often employ lawyers and experts, or have to pay for mailing and copying fees for their evidence, and for transportation to their interview. In addition, for people granted asylum, there is the fee for the green card (currently $1,225.00) and for U.S. citizenship ($725.00). Obtaining status in the United States is not cheap, and given that they have to pay for other steps in the process, asylum seekers are pulling their weight.

If the purpose of the fee is to offset the government's costs, perhaps there is a better way. First of all, the $50.00 fee will do little to help the government. Given that the fee will only apply to certain affirmative asylum applicants, the amount of money generated will not be significant. Based on the current number of cases filed, a $50.00 fee would add less than $5 million to the government's coffers per year. I have not been able to find recent data on USCIS's budget, which is almost entirely funded by user fees, but in 2008, that budget was $2.6 billion. Presumably, it is more today. Even using the 2008 figure, $5 million represents less than 0.2% of the total.

If the government wants to make a profit from asylum seekers, maybe an alternative solution is to allow "premium processing" for asylum cases. Certain types of applications allow the alien to pay an additional fee (currently $1,410.00) to have their case processed more quickly. Some asylum seekers would probably be able to afford such a fee (remember, asylum seekers have made their own way to the U.S., usually by paying for transportation and sometimes by paying a smuggler). So perhaps there is room here to make a deal (I know how much President Trump loves a good deal).

I've previously spoken about this idea to the muckety-mucks at the Asylum Division (and I've written about it here as well). I think the main objection was optics--it looks bad to charge asylum seekers a fee, and it looks bad to allow asylum seekers with money to jump ahead of those without. I get that. But now we are in a new world. The government seems to be moving forward with fees for asylum seekers. If so, at least one of these objections is off the table.

As for the fairness argument (people with money should not be processed before people without money), in my opinion, that fails as well. Name one thing about asylum that is fair? The idea of fairness just doesn't apply to asylum, so why apply it to premium processing? Earlier this year, we switched from FIFO to LIFO, so people who apply today are often interviewed before people who have been waiting for years. Is that fair? Asylum seekers with money hire fancy lawyers to help with their cases. This isn't fair either. So for me, at least, the fairness argument falls flat.

This is especially so given that allowing "rich" asylum applicants to pay a fee would benefit everyone in the system. People who could pay the fee would benefit the most, and their cases would move the fastest. But the infusion of money into the system and the removal of "premium" cases from the queue would benefit everyone. Even those who do not pay should see their cases processed faster than they are moving today.

So instead of charging all applicants, including indigent applicants, $50.00 to file for asylum, let's allow those who can afford it to pay for premium processing ($1,410.00 or some other fee that makes sense). This will offset costs for the government and benefit all asylum seekers.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: