USCIS Rumblings on Possible Fee Increase – Outrageous!

Gosh, I could not believe my ears! USCIS fee increases? We hear some rumblings from the USCIS director about another possible USCIS fee increase and I thought to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding!” How is this possible? If the USCIS were a regular American business venture whose service was constantly down but costs and fees kept increasing, it would have failed a long time ago.

On July 30, 2007, the USCIS had drastically increased filing fees for a variety of immigration benefits. Overnight, applicants faced new fees that in many cases more than doubled the costs of coming to the United States, or remaining here as green card holders or naturalized citizens. Applicants for green cards saw the filing fees jump from $405 to $1,010, inclusive of biometric fees. Aspiring citizens suddenly had to pay $695 for the naturalization application that had cost $330 the day before. Immigrant petitions for foreign workers likewise shot up, from $195 to $475, as did relative petitions – from $190 to $355 – and nonimmigrant worker petitions, from $190 to $320.

At the time, the USCIS justified the fee hikes by promising improvements in customer service, and a decrease in the large processing backlogs that have plagued the system in recent years. While I applaud the efforts of USCIS to improve its turnaround time – including its recent progress in cutting backlogs and wait times for citizenship applicants – I am alarmed by indications that the USCIS again is considering an increase in filing fees, as readers of MurthyDotCom and the MurthyBulletin will recall from our recent article. (See the MurthyBulletin article titled “USCIS Considering an Increase in Filing Fees,” <> November 6, 2009.)

During a visit to Los Angeles in September 2009, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas floated the concept of a fee increase as a possible means to fill a $118 million revenue gap, caused by a drop in applications for citizenship and skilled-worker visas. At the time, an LA Times article noted that Director Mayorkas was requesting a Congressional appropriation of $206 million to make up the budget shortfall – this, despite the fact that his agency is required by law to be self-supporting – and perhaps therein lies the rub.

As a matter of fairness, it makes sense for immigration benefits to be paid for by the people who are seeking them – but only if the fees are reasonably related to the actual costs of processing the paperwork. No doubt, new security measures, necessitated by the events of September 11, 2001, impose additional financial burdens that must be borne by someone, and that someone, inevitably, will be the applicant as long as the USCIS is required to be self-supporting.

Well, first, there is the issue of the cost of processing a petition. Based on various meetings and personal visits to the Vermont Service Center and the Nebraska Service Centers myself, most USCIS examiners are asked to review H1B petitions with a few minutes and render a decision. Even complex national interest waiver or NIW petitions were given about 15 minutes to review and wrap up the decision making. It seems unfathomable that the time and effort required for such reviews, even if one adds all of the other miscellaneous government overhead costs to be several hundreds – and in some cases thousands – of dollars!

There is also an argument to be made, however, that increased taxpayer support is precisely what is needed to make the existing immigration system function smoothly. The entire society benefits from the additional security precautions that now are part and parcel of our immigration system, and it would be appropriate for this public good to be supported by public funds, rather than increasing the already-steep filing fees for foreign nationals who would like to live and work in the United States. Furthermore, it is unfair to ask new immigration applicants essentially to pay for the case backlog that they had no part in creating. Moreover, the U.S. economy needs the talents of foreign-born workers to preserve our technological competitiveness, at a time when relatively few Americans are entering the critical areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (often referred to as STEM areas). We should be making it easier for American businesses to bring qualified workers here from abroad, when the demands of the market so dictate. It is in everyone’s interest to have a system that allows this to happen in an expeditious and predictable manner, but the system breaks down if it is not sufficiently funded – and it loses legitimacy if the wrong people are bearing a disproportionate share of the system’s cost.

Historically, many immigration lawyers at one time supported fee increases by the USCIS in exchange for superior and faster service. The concern now is that the service has not improved but vast amounts of funds are expended in fraud investigations resulting in fewer H1B and other approvals to help employers and businesses. Let us hope that Congress will rethink its funding strategy when the immigration reform debate resumes. In the meantime, let us also hope we will not see another fee hike in the near future.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.