Why Charging a Fee for Asylum Is Not Wrong

By Dan Cadman on November 14, 2019

Much ado has been made over the proposal by the Trump administration to begin, for the first time, charging fees to file for asylum. Unsurprisingly, progressives, including some members of Congress, are shocked and outraged at the very thought. But let's examine the issue a bit, in the context of a recent media inquiry I received asking my thoughts about it and the other fee increases being simultaneously proposed.

The inquiry came from Sputnik Radio, a Russian outlet that shows a significant interest in immigration-related developments as they arise in our country. I'm not sure what to make of that one way or another, and so offer no judgment other than to observe that perhaps there may be a mix of amusement at how bollixed up our politics and policies can sometimes seem to others whose nations and cultures are so different, along with a real curiosity given the equally different manner in which our nations engage on the subject of immigration and citizenship generally, and in this case, asylum particularly. I think they did a good job of being balanced in the way they presented my remarks in their story:

According to Dan Cadman, a fellow at the Centre for Immigration Studies and a retired INS/ICE official with thirty years of government experience, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] is self-funding.

Accordingly, it is expected to gain all revenues, even including for the salaries of its officers and clerical and technical employees, from the fees it charges.

"This requires adjustments from time to time in the amount that the agency must charge for each benefit sought, because even though those employees are paid out of a fee account, like all other federal employees, they are promoted, given cost of living adjustments, etc," says Cadman.

The former immigration official pointed out that considering how the asylum program has ballooned in recent years to untold numbers, it is unsustainable for the agency to continue handling those requests without assessing fees. ... Cadman points out that many of the immigrants seem to find money to pay smugglers to help them "make the trek north and illegally across the US borders". He says:

"And, while this is anecdotal, it is not lost on a lot of observers that when they have seen videoclips of the migrant caravans, many of the individuals are carrying and using smart phones. It seems reasonable that if they have the cash for smugglers and high tech gear, they should expect to pay for the applications that they file instead of expecting others to subsidize those costs."

Although this wasn't the whole of what I had to say, it's a fair synopsis given the constraints of "print space", meaning that even in the digital age, there are limits to the number of words one usually expects in a news item or analysis.

One of the most disingenuous things I've seen in the disparaging comments of those opposed to the proposed fee is that it would make the United States one of only four countries that charge fees for asylum, the others being Iran, Fiji, and Australia.

To critically examine that apples-and-oranges comparison, ask yourself how many people are seeking asylum in Iran these days. Anybody other than perhaps the occasional Shia Muslim from a majority Sunni country who feels persecuted? Frankly I doubt even that since they could equally go to any number of other less repressive countries that welcome adherents to the Shiite version of Islam.

How about Fiji? As best I can tell, nobody. In fact, the reverse is true: There is a fairly constant outflow of Fijians who seek asylum elsewhere, primarily Australia and New Zealand, and most frequently they are rejected as economic migrants.

Australia is a different story and, to the extent that they charge fees for asylum, it is because Australia, like us, has faced a deluge of applicants for refuge/asylum in recent years, many of whom are believed to be abusing the system because they don't truly fear persecution, but rather want a better life elsewhere. Thus, it makes sense that Australia would take steps to mitigate abuse of the system, and assessing fees for the time and effort it takes to weed through the thousands of applications is one small step in the right direction.

This is particularly important where, as in the case of the United States, USCIS, the agency charged with conducting the adjudications, receives no taxpayer-funded appropriations through Congress, but instead must make its own way through the fees it assesses.

Keep in mind that all of the time spent on asylum applications is time not spent doing work examining applications and petitions for which it is receiving fees. Thus, in a very real sense, it's a double-whammy for fee-paying aliens and naturalization applicants. Not only are they subsidizing the tens of thousands of asylum applicants, but they are waiting longer in the queue of backlogged work that develops because of the constant detail of officers to help keep up with the flow of credible fear and asylum claimants showing up at our southern border. As I was quoted in the article, in the long run this is unsustainable.

Another point I want to make is legal-technical: There is a difference in our law between someone who seeks refuge and someone who seeks asylum; that's clearly lost in the discussion. No fee is being proposed for refugees. An applicant for refugee status is someone who is somewhere outside the United States asking to be admitted. An applicant for asylum is either already in the United States, albeit almost certainly having entered illegally, or standing on the literal threshold of our borders. To reiterate, the proposed fee solely relates to asylum seekers, and for the very sound reason that they are overwhelming our borders and our orderly system of immigration processes.

What's more, statistically speaking, when their claims are examined by designated asylum officers or by immigration judges, the overwhelming number of them are found to be economic migrants, not bona fide asylees. This contrasts greatly with the refugee program, because in that program, our refugee officers at least theoretically get to pick and choose which populations of applicants they will interview. That's not a possibility with the thousands who self-pick by just showing up and presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents after crossing into the country illegally so that they can file their claims thereafter.

Finally, when considering the matter of fees — whether for asylum or, for that matter, any other benefit — it's important for readers to understand that for every fee charged, there is a waiver of the fee that may be granted when applicants truly cannot afford to pay.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that the moral outrage is phony, but especially so when it comes from members of Congress. If they don't want the agency to charge fees for the asylum program, then it's easy enough for them to appropriate enough funding to cover the program costs, including the overhead of personnel salaries etc., so that other fee-paying applicants aren't infringed by the rapidly burgeoning demands of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who crossed the border illegally. But they haven't. As a taxpayer I wouldn't like it, yet they could do it if they chose.