Financial Losses Due to USCIS Fee Waivers Soar to $87 Million a Year

By David North on September 9, 2011

USCIS has revealed – if one applies some math to an obscure government document – that it is now experiencing fee-waiver-caused losses at the rate of $87 million a year for FY 2011, sharply up from $27 million a year for FY 2009.

A USCIS press officer gave me the $27 million figure a year or so ago.

The government has long had a program allowing certain very low-income persons – mostly aliens – to seek waivers of immigration and naturalization fees; the basic policy is appropriate but what USCIS has done in the last year was to make it much, much easier for applicants to file for fee waivers.

Generally, 85 percent of the applications for fee waivers were approved by USCIS so far in FY 2011; thus the agency was a little more stingy with these decisions than it is with some other benefit decisions, where the approval rate was in excess of 99 percent on a huge block of applications, as we noted in an earlier blog.

In the past, applicants had to write a little note to USCIS explaining why they qualified for the fee waiver. In July of last year, USCIS created a handy form (I-912) for that purpose and let all and sundry know that they had created a new, easier process, as I reported at the time. The new approach apparently worked, and many more fees were waived than in the past.

Let's try to place the $87 million and the $27 million figures into two different contexts, an individual one, and an agency one.

First, USCIS fees are substantial (and fund most of the agency's activities); they also vary considerably from form to form. Depending on the amount of agency work involved, the ones covered by the new release range from $135 to $985 per form, and sometimes the applicant has to cope with more than a single form.

Secondly, they are no refunds. If an alien applies for something and loses (which does not happen very often with USCIS) the agency keeps the fee.

Thirdly, and more significantly, USCIS approval of an application can totally change someone's life, converting that person from an illegal alien to a legal one, for instance, and thus providing total, legal access to jobs in the U.S. for the rest of the alien's life. No matter what the fee, that's a huge bargain.

Other fees pay for lesser benefits, such as an appeal from a negative agency decision, or the replacement of a lost USCIS document.

Turning from individual fees and their benefits to the significance of the increased loss of $60 million a year ($87 million minus $27 million = $60 million) to the agency we find the following:

A) All moneys lost through fee waivers either reduce the agency's income, or increase fees for other applicants, or, in the long run, increase the costs to the taxpayer. There is no free lunch.

B) The Congressional Continuing Resolution for the USCIS budget for FY 2011 includes $224 million in tax funding, and $2,806 million in expected fees. (See p. 144 of the DHS 2012 Budget Request.) So the $87 million reduces the fee income, by 3 percent, a noticeable but not fatal hit. The total amount of fee waivers, $87 million, can be compared to the total FY 2011 tax funding of $224 million.

C) The loss of $87 million or $60 million, however, pales compared to the loss of $70 billion a year to the government as a whole resulting from the preservation of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, something that, unfortunately from my perspective, has been supported by both the White House and the Congress.

An account of how we at CIS wrestled these figures out of USCIS, and what groups of aliens are most likely to be granted fee waivers, will be covered in future blogs.