Extra fees upheld for refugees to stay in U.S.
By Bob Egelko
The San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2010
A federal judge in San Francisco had been considering refunds for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, who were charged extra fees for years to stay in the United States, when Congress and President Obama changed the law last fall.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson declared the fees legal, dating back to 1998 when they were first levied. 'Congress has spoken,' he said.
Henderson had declared in 2007 that federal law did not appear to allow the $80 fees that the government charged 425,000 refugees from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador for collecting their fingerprints, signature and photos.
He declined to order refunds at the time but said the Central Americans could seek reimbursement – estimated by their lawyer at $100 million – if they won their case. As a final hearing approached, however, Congress changed the law in October and retroactively legalized the fees.
Henderson said the new law does not violate the Central Americans' rights and is part of a program that allows them to live and work in the United States. The refugees hold temporary residence under a law for foreigners who fled their homelands because of war or natural disaster.
U.S. officials approved entry for Hondurans and Nicaraguans in 1999 because of a hurricane, and for Salvadorans because of a 2001 earthquake, and have renewed their stays since then. Federal officials have extended the same status to more than 100,000 Haitians who were in the United States at the time of the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The Central Americans sued under a law that limited their one-time registration fees to $50. Immigration officials started adding the additional charges, now $80, in 1998 to cover identity and background checks. Henderson said in his 2007 ruling that the $50 fee was supposed to cover those services, and the law appeared to prohibit additional fees.