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Rich? Famous? America Wants You
Published on Friday, June 1, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
The Rich Pay To Get to Front of the Line for US Visas
Rich? Famous? America Wants You
by Dan Eggen
 
The Immigration and Naturalization Service will begin allowing foreign celebrities, athletes, executives and other specific types of workers to pay $1,000 to get work-visa applications processed within 15 days, instead of waiting the usual three months or more.
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Many immigration specialists said the program would create a disturbing two-tiered system by giving special access to wealthy foreigners and large corporations.

Officials of the agency said that the Premium Processing Program, to be inaugurated Friday, would generate an additional $80 million a year in revenue and allow the hiring of hundreds more workers to help all visa applicants.
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In the process, the officials said, businesses that have long complained about delays in the immigration process will be able to be more competitive by paying extra for faster service. Officials of the agency estimate that 80,000 workers a year will eventually take part in the program, which will be expanded in late summer to include the popular H-1B visa for technology workers.
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"One of the larger motivating factors behind the Premium Processing Program was that it will give us a way to get extra revenue to hire more adjudicators and modernize all our systems across the board," said Eyleen Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We think this will help everyone."
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But many immigration specialists said the program would create a disturbing two-tiered system by giving special access to wealthy foreigners and large corporations. Critics also said that by focusing resources on those applicants, the agency may end up imposing even longer waits on petitioners of more modest means.
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"The government ought to be processing immigration documents expeditiously for everybody," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research organization. "You don't go to the department of motor vehicles and pay extra to get ahead in line."
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"If we as a country decide we want to let in immigrants, we ought to fully fund an efficient mechanism for processing those immigrants," he said. The fast-track processing program was pushed by the agency and approved by Congress and President Bill Clinton last year as a little-noticed provision in an appropriations bill. The $1,000 fee, according to the legislation, "shall be used to provide certain premium-processing services to business customers" and can be adjusted for inflation in coming years by the attorney general.
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The program will at first focus on a half-dozen limited categories of visas, which allow citizens of other countries to work in America for limited periods. One is used by notable athletes and celebrities, from foreign-born baseball players to international rock stars, while another includes scientists, authors and others with artistic or specialized skills.
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Many executives and managers in multinational corporations will also be eligible immediately to apply for expedited service, as will some temporary agricultural and service workers.
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By the end of August, Ms. Schmidt said, the agency will expand the program to include all "nonimmigrant workers" who want employment in the United States but are not seeking citizenship. Officials said there were no immediate plans to offer faster processing to immigrant workers seeking green cards, which allow foreign citizens to work permanently in the United States. The $1,000 fee would be paid on top of the normal $110 processing charge. In the case of technology companies filing H-1B visa petitions, the fee would be in addition to the $1,110 currently charged. The money will be returned if the applicant does not receive a response from the agency within 15 days, but the fee does not guarantee approval, Ms. Schmidt said.
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The new money will allow the agency to hire 450 employees in fiscal 2002 who will work on processing all types of petitions, officials said.
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"We will make sure we have the resources on hand not to jeopardize other services," Ms. Schmidt said.
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But many immigration lawyers and specialists contend that the need for the fee is the result of meager funding from Congress. Most federal money to the agency is spent on the U.S. Border Patrol and other enforcement tasks, while most immigration services are paid for with user fees. "This is the 'money talks' scenario," said Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The INS's need for more money is what led to this. They're so desperate for funds to clear their backlogs."
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Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer who handles many employer-based visa requests, said some of his clients could be helped by the new program, but many others could be hurt.
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"You used to have to have a reason to have things expedited," he said. "Now you don't need a reason, you just need a check. For a lot of small companies or individuals, they're not in a position to shove out an extra $1,000. I'm not sure this is fair to them."
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At the four agency centers that process visa petitions, the wait times are an average of 60 to 90 days for the categories of workers who will be eligible for the new program, officials said.
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The Immigration and Naturalization Service completed about 3 million visa requests and other petitions last year, and granted citizenship to 1 million others.
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Officials said the premium program should not have much effect on the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which issues visas to applicants overseas after they have received the approval of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Many of those eligible for faster processing are already in the country, Ms. Schmidt said.
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She said that President George W. Bush's 2002 budget requires that $20 million of the money brought in by the new fee program must be dedicated to improving services for immigrants sponsored by family members rather than employers.

© 2001 the International Herald Tribune

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