Cash-strapped USCIS hikes fees, asks for $1.2B Bailout Money

by Cristina A. Godinez, Esq.

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If you are planning to file an immigration petition or application any time soon, be ready to cough up more money.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) yesterday announced sweeping changes to fees for immigration benefits that is expected to take effect on October 2, 2020.

Applications for naturalization or citizenship will shoot up by a whopping 83 percent, from $640 to $1,170 for paper filings, or $1,160, if filed online.

Marriage-based green card applicants will need to pay over 60 percent more, or $2,860 instead of $1,760. Under the new schedule, application fees for the work permit (I-765) and for advance parole (I-131) are no longer included with the main green card (I-485) application. At present, there is no separate fee for I-765 and I-131 applications.

Non-Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (non-DACA) work permit applications will increase from $410 to $550.

According to the USCIS, the scheduled fee adjustment will lead to an average increase of 20 percent across all types of cases. It added new fees for certain immigration benefit requests, established multiple fees for nonimmigrant worker petitions, and limited the number of beneficiaries for certain forms. The USCIS, however, slightly reduced fees for some immigration benefit applications.

This final rule is intended to ensure that USCIS has the resources it needs to provide adequate service to applicants and petitioners.

USCIS derives its funding almost entirely from the fees that applicants and petitioners pay for its services. It is not dependent on regular budgetary appropriations from the federal government.

There lies the source of the USCIS budget crisis. Lest we are led to believe that Covid-19 is the cause, USCIS’ money troubles started long before and for reasons other than the pandemic.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) points to a series of immigration policies and procedures since 2017 that led to inefficiencies within the USCIS. These policies caused processing delays and eventually discouraged applicants and petitioners from submitting their applications and petitions to USCIS.

For instance, USCIS began requiring in-person interviews for all employment-based cases. In recent years, USCIS had been issuing requests for evidence for documents that have either been already submitted by the applicant or are not material to prove eligibility for the immigration benefit. These policies waste limited resources and stretch case processing times longer than needed.

USCIS inefficiencies have reached the point where case-processing times increased substantially even as the number of cases filed decreased.

It is no surprise that with the looming fee increases, applicants and petitioners for immigration benefits find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

USCIS has been asking Congress to grant it $1.2 billion bailout money to prevent temporarily laying off about 70 percent of its workforce, that amounts to about 13,400 employees. According to USCIS, it will need the funds to remain operational from the end of the fiscal year on September 30 through the first quarter of fiscal year 2021.

Without the money from Congress, USCIS said it has no choice but to resort to mass lay-offs, which in turn would lead to further inefficiencies.

The nonpartisan think-tank Migration Policy Institute projects that the furlough will aggravate the existing processing backlog (of about 5.7 million cases as of March 31, 2020) by nearly 75,000 cases each month that the furlough is in effect.

At this point, our hope is for USCIS to at least try to get its act together, if and when Congress requires it to exercise fiscal responsibility and to implement cost-efficient measures for adjudicating cases.

A good starting point is for Congress to require USCIS to suspend all deadlines and extend all nonimmigrant statuses for at least 90 days beyond the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency, and to permit naturalization oaths to be taken through video.

Hopefully, $1.2 billion will be enough incentive for USCIS to return to its legal mandate to adjudicate applications for immigration benefits fairly and efficiently.

Cristina Godinez is an attorney who has provided immigration solutions to families, businesses and at-risk migrants in the United States for over 15 years. She worked with the immigration law practice group of a top-tier global law firm and later, with the world’s largest immigration law firm. She is also the attorney at the faith-based Migrant Center of New York where she oversees the delivery of immigration legal services to low-income clients. Cristina is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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