These comments are submitted on behalf of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that concentrates on the impact of immigration on U.S. systems; the writer is David North, a fellow at the Center.
The Context: Fees paid by people and entities seeking immigration benefits support about 95 percent of the activities of USCIS; only the small balance of about 5 percent is funded by tax monies. Some people seeking immigration benefits, often illegal aliens, say that they cannot afford to pay these fees, and, under USCIS regulations, seek a waiver of the fees. This form (the I-912) is the four-page form that low-income people submit to USCIS along with the substantive form for the immigration benefit in question.
What happens when would-be beneficiaries do not pay fees? There are, over time, three adverse effects: 1) other would-be beneficiaries, usually aliens, who do pay fees, will pay higher fees; 2) the agency, already sore-pressed by massive numbers of requests, will move more slowly than otherwise, and 3) eventually Congress will be asked to appropriate more tax moneys to support the agency. For these reasons it is extremely important that only would-be beneficiaries in genuine need of relief secure the waivers.
Historically, USCIS and INS, the legacy agency, handled this matter by asking the would-be beneficiary to write a note to the agency seeking the fee waiver. The current leadership of USCIS, apparently, found that this mild requirement was too onerous on the applicants, and devised this form, the I-912, to make it easier for aliens and others to use it.
Filling out a form, apparently, requires fewer skills and less independent thought than writing a letter, even though its contents were clearly laid out in the instructions.
These efforts on the part of the new USCIS leadership were thunderously successful. In 2009, when the old system was in effect, the agency lost about $27 million a year as a result of these waivers; by 2011, after the I-912 was introduced, the losses rose to about $87 million a year; and currently the agency provides data that suggest a total annual loss of $198 million a year, an eight-fold increase in its losses.
The size of these losses is never published by the agency, not even in budget submissions, and was calculated by the Center for Immigration Studies from non-financial data that the agency released. For more on how the Center estimated these losses, see my blog on the subject.
Meanwhile, USCIS has not taken any steps to encourage would-be beneficiaries to make use of the micro-lending agencies active with foreign-born populations and supported by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, nor has it made any effort to promote the use of credit cards to finance the fees, though many other government agencies — federal, state, and local — use these strategies to maximize their collections. USCIS will accept credit card payments for its fees, but this is a bit of information that is hidden from the general public.
Given all this, it is extremely important that the design of the I-912 be such that it enhances appropriate decision making on each application. The design of the form, currently, discourages thoughtful decisions and deprives the adjudicating officers of information that they need to do their jobs.
Page 1: the first text on the form reads:
"Before you fill out this form, please read the instructions."
We propose that this be replaced with this text:
"Before you fill out this form, be aware that all USCIS fees can be paid with credit cards, or with loans from reputable banks and credit unions; also, before you complete the form, read the instructions."
Page 1: Line 7. This has seven lines for dependents who may be covered by the request; this is an excessive amount of space, particularly given the instruction on the form which says:
"If you need more space, attach a separate sheet of paper."
Page 1: new material.
Assuming the reduction of the spaces for dependents suggested above, and bearing in mind the inch or so of empty space already at the bottom of this page, there is ample room for additional material, such as the following:
- Street address, city, state, zip code
- Home telephone, cell phone, e-mail address
- Credit card information
The rationale for inserting these three lines is dual: 1) it will give the adjudicating officer the information needed to contact the applicant should he or she have questions, without having to refer to any other government forms; 2) if the applicant has one or more phones, and an e-mail address, and one or more credit cards, it may suggest to the officer that the applicant does not need the waiver after all.
Further, the item on credit card numbers will serve as a reminder to some of the applicants that there is another way to fund the USCIS fee in question.
The emphasis on the possibility of paying the fees, rather than waiving them, is more appropriate for young would-be beneficiaries rather than older or disabled ones. Someone seeking TPS status, or an EAD, for example, is likely to have his or her economic status enhanced considerably by the granting of the benefit. The difference between seeking work as an illegal alien and seeking work with the specific authorization of the U.S. Government is remarkable, and it makes good sense to borrow money to pay a fee to secure legal working status.
The U.S. government is perfectly content to see young citizens run up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay college costs, to make the young people more employable — why not let some aliens run up a few hundred in debt to secure the same goal by getting an EAD?