WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is proposing to nearly double the cost of becoming a U.S. citizen and drastically raise the cost of becoming a legal permanent resident.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Homeland Security Department, said yesterday that it wanted to raise the citizenship application fee from $330 to $595, and the fee for becoming a legal permanent resident from $325 to $905. But the agency plans to eliminate other costs that legal-residency applicants often pay while they are waiting for their permanent residency to be final.

Emilio Gonzalez, the Citizenship and Immigration Services director, said application fees pay for more than 99 percent of the agency's costs. The increases are needed to make up for lost revenue and help the agency become "the immigration service of the 21st century," he said.

"We need to grow," Gonzalez said. "We need to strengthen. We need to modernize. We need to provide the very best possible customer service. We need to provide the very best possible security infrastructure for what we do."

The agency said the new fees would reduce average application-processing times by 20 percent by the end of September 2009.

It said it would raise $2 billion over two years from the fee increases. The money is to be spent on improving immigration offices, technology, hiring and training; on background checks of immigrants; and on speeding up the completion of applications.

Applicants now pay a $70 fingerprinting fee; the agency wants to raise that to $80. Fees also are paid for work permits, replacement of lost green cards, petitions to adopt orphans from other countries, and other benefits.

The largest increases are a jump from $475 to $2,850 for entrepreneurs who want to immigrate to the country and plan to invest in businesses and create jobs, and an increase from $180 to $1,370 for people still applying to be legal residents under the 1986 immigration law that granted amnesty.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship, criticized the hefty fee increases, saying they would "price the American Dream out of reach for qualified immigrants" seeking to become citizens.

"We must look to other solutions for funding the necessary work" of the citizenship agency, Kennedy said. "We are a nation of immigrants, and Congress should recognize its responsibility to support the vital work of immigration services by appropriating the necessary funds."

The proposed increases will not be final until after a public-comment and review period. They are likely to go into effect in mid-June, Gonzalez said.

Congressional Democrats warned Gonzalez in a letter last week that they planned to review the agency's analyses behind any proposed fee increases.

But Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said it was "right for the people who benefit to pay the cost of that benefit - not taxpayers."

Immigration advocates have been bracing for the expected jump in fees. William Ramos, Washington director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the increases would be "devastating to our communities" and "create another obstacle" for those who want to be citizens.

The agency last raised its fees in 2004, citing the cost of more intense background checks after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2005, it raised all fees $10, citing inflation.

Immigrant advocates want Congress to appropriate money to help pay costs, and have criticized the application backlogs, lost files and other problems.

Tourism to U.S. Has Declined

Fewer international visitors have been coming to

the United States since the 9/11 attacks, despite an initiative announced

a year ago by top government officials.

In 2000, this country

was the destination for 7.5 percent of all international travelers. After the 2001 attacks, tourism plummeted.

Four years later, only

6 percent of international visits were to this country, the Commerce Department said.

Reasons cited for the decline include delays

in getting visas, long lines at airports, and failure to promote the United States abroad.

Lawmakers and travel executives are working on ways to boost international tourism, which contributes $1.3 trillion and 7.3 million jobs to the U.S. economy, according to the Travel Industry Association.

"It's a significant part

of the economy, and we're losing our share," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D., N.D.), chairman of a Senate panel investigating

the issue.

Travel executives are asking, among other things, for more airport and consular staff, a

visa system that uses new technology, and

a campaign to promote

the United States as

a welcoming place

to visit.

- Associated Press


More information

on the government's proposed fee changes is available via http://go.philly.com/