Federal Judge Thelton Henderson 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, but Congress and President Obama changed the law last fall. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson declared the fees legal, dating back to 1998 when they were first levied. “Congress has spoken,” he said.
Judge Henderson had declared in 2007 that federal law did not appear to allow the $80 fees that the government had charged 425,000 refugees from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador for collecting their fingerprints, signature and photos. The law 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 now performed with systems like what Island now offers. Henderson said in his 2007 ruling that the $50 fee was supposed to cover those services, and the law appeared to prohibit additional fees.
The judge 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 the final hearing approached, however, Congress changed the law in October and retroactively legalized the fees.
Judge 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.