The bill calls for immigrants to pay both a fee and a fine. In a recent speech Mr. Obama used the word “penalty” to describe the fine illegal immigrants must pay. Fees, on the other hand, are meant to help cover the cost of administering an amnesty.
As to the fees, the bill does not outline what the fees would be – and there are waivers. The bill simply notes that illegal immigrants aged 16 and older who want legal status will have to pay a fee “in an amount determined by [DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano].” While it is unclear how much the fee would be, the bill says it should be enough to cover processing the applications. But in the next section, the bill gives Ms. Napolitano the power to limit the fee and to exempt “classes of individuals” altogether. With such broad authority granted by Congress, it is unclear whether this fee will even apply to most amnesty applicants.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services already offers waivers for those who cannot afford certain fees. In fact, the Obama administration created a form for such waivers in 2010, and similar waivers may apply to any future amnesty.
To obtain a fee waiver for some existing immigration benefits, applicants simply must show that they are currently using a welfare program. Our estimates, which are based on Census data, show that 71 percent of illegal immigrant households with children make use of one form of welfare.
As for the fine – or "penalty" – the current version of the Senate immigration bill requires illegal immigrants to pay $500 for the initial probationary legal status and another fine of $500 six years later. If a person wants to switch from this provisional legal status to green card status (and eventual US citizenship), he or she will have to pay a $1,000 fine many years down the road. But there are many exceptions.
For example, a person of any age who claims to have entered the US before age 16 and has a high school degree or GED does not have to pay. Finally, people under 21 years of age are also exempted. Furthermore, it is likely that some non-profits will assist applicants in paying the fines – some of which will be using taxpayer-provided funds to do so. The bill actually grants such groups $150 million to help illegal immigrants apply for the amnesty. In reality, the fine may not be much of a punishment at all.