Disentangling Fee-Waiver Data from the USCIS Statistical Swamp

By David North on September 13, 2011

In a recent blog I wrote that USCIS had reported losses from fee waivers of $27 million in FY 2009 and a projected $87 million in FY 2011. Fee waivers are granted to low-income applicants who want something from USCIS but who argue successfully that they are too poor to pay the related fees.

The statement above might imply that the two numbers – $27 million and the much larger $87 million – both were published, as such, by the agency.

Nothing could be further from the truth; the basis for the larger number ($87 million) had to be pried from the agency in a three-week battle, and then worked out in a series of 32 hand calculations from raw numbers. The smaller number ($27 million) had been given to me by a USCIS press officer more than a year ago.

Last spring, as USCIS's Office of Public Engagement was preparing for one of its stakeholders' meetings (where the agency makes efforts to answer questions about its operations and, thus, to make it easier to grant migration benefits), prospective attendees were asked to suggest topics. I asked: "please provide a month-by-month breakdown of the fee waiver applications, approvals, and denials for each type of application, for March, April and May 2011."

I should not have asked for the month by month detail, as it is extraneous, but USCIS ignored that part of the request anyway, as it did my request for the denials. What it did produce were useful data on the receipts, approvals, and approval percentages for each of 31 different forms, but with no financial information. The line in the resulting table, showing the most numerous waiver request, follows as a sample:

Form Type # Received # Approved % Approved

I then looked up the cost of this fee – $680 – and multiplied it by 23,166 to get the total dollar loss of fee waivers in this category, which came to $15,752,880.

The N-400 is the basic naturalization application form, something by definition filled out by legal immigrants with, usually, at least five years of presence in the country, presumably a much better-off-than-average part of the alien population. That fully one out of every six applicants for citizenship is judged to be too poor to pay the fee does not speak terribly highly of their economic success in this country. But, I digress.

Since there are 31 different forms on the list, I then went through the above operation 30 more times and, in the 32nd calculation, totaled them all to find $51,148,406 in fee waivers.

The next problem, that took three weeks to solve, was this: what was the time period for the data?

My question had been for three months; the title of the table said "FY 2011 Fee Waivers." I did not think the table showed only three months, as the $51 million figure would suggest that the annual loss of fees would be a staggering $204 million. I knew it could not be the full fiscal year, as in June the fiscal year had three months to go.

Given this statistical confusion – a condition encountered before with USCIS statistics, but not with those from the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics – I set in motion, through three different channels, queries about what time period was involved.

One of the three eventually paid off, and I was told, as I suspected, that it was for a period of seven months. Only then could I extrapolate the raw data into an annual projection, that of about $87 million.

In short, getting decision-making data out of USCIS is a continuing, and totally needless, chore.

Substantively, what kind of fee waivers was USCIS likely to approve, what kinds were less likely to be approved? As noted in the prior blog, the average rate of approvals was 85 percent, and in a majority of categories the approval rates were above 80 percent. Some categories had thousands of applicants each, and some ten or fewer.

The fee waiver approvals, as you might expect, were much more likely to go to aliens at the bottom of the economic spectrum, who, in turn, were at the top of the risk spectrum.

In contrast, two applications were from what might be regarded as middle class segments of the foreign-born population, those wanting alien travel documents (Form I-131) and those seeking the replacement of naturalization certificates (Form N-565). Neither of these could be regarded as high risk populations; the fee waiver requests were approved in, respectively, only 44 percent and 62 percent of the cases, much lower rates than the average.

The first subgroup, then, is rich enough to travel out of the U.S., but too poor to pay the $445 fee; interesting.

On the other hand, there were the numerous (8,061) people wanting to waive the $585 fee for the Form I-192. Let's call this a low-income, high risk population, because, as the I-192 instructions tell us, this form is primarily for aliens outside the U.S. who want to enter temporarily despite the fact that they have already been ruled inadmissable for various reasons, such as their criminal or their health records. The form is also used by those wanting to obtain visas as crime or trafficking victims; two groups that have, by USCIS standards, high refusal rates.

In the seven-month period, USCIS had 8,061 fee waiver applications from the I-192 population, and said yes to 8,059 of them, or 99.975 percent.

For the full text of the table showing the form types, the receipts, approvals, and approval percentages go here.