GAO Highlights USCIS's Need for More H-1B Fees

By David North on September 18, 2015

Two unconnected recent events remind us of USCIS's desperate need for more fees:

  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a "watchblog" calling attention to a May GAO report that said USCIS's new electronic decision-making system has been delayed and will cost six times as much as once predicted, for a new total of $3.1 billion.
  • A pro-H1-B website,, announced that, as of October 1, the $2,000 and $2,250 extra fees for H-1B and L-1 petitions filed by employers will no longer apply.

The GAO report said that the new USCIS system will also take years longer to be implemented than planned. Meanwhile, the extra fees for firms addicted to foreign workers ("H-1B and L-1 dependent" is the formal term) are producing $100 million to $250 million a year. Those fees could go a long way to finance the agency's new Electronic Immigration System (or ELIS, a play on Ellis Island).

I have seen nothing in the general or specialized media that links those two subjects.

While I must admit that I missed the GAO report when it emerged in May, a couple of weeks ago CIS published a blog of mine reporting on a USCIS decision to move backward from electronic filings to paper ones, which made me think the electronic system was in trouble.

The MyVisaJobs announcement said that the special fees (created largely by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) five years ago) would end on the last day of this month. That may indeed happen, but Congress has an opportunity to fix that in the next dozen days and, presumably, it could do so retroactively later this fall. MyVisaJobs did not report on this possibility.

I am not terribly enthusiastic about providing a lot more funding to USCIS, but if it does not get more fees from aliens and employers it will go the taxpayers for relief. USCIS is about 95 percent funded by fees. Better that corporations who get bargain-rate professional talent from the H-1B program should pay rather than sticking the rest of us with the bill.

The immigration agencies, first the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and then its successor USCIS, have long been behind the rest of the government in the use of electronic application and decision-making systems. The matter of many thousands of lost (or misplaced) paper files has been gumming up decision-making for decades. This delays both the provision of benefits to aliens (and their employers) and the referral of problem cases to law enforcement.

Devising a comprehensive electronic system to handle millions of files, in various stages of application, decision-making, and storage is, of course, a major challenge, but so was putting virtually every book ever written into the Google Books database. We do not know the pitfalls that Google met, but whatever they were, they were overcome.

One of the reasons that USCIS has run into serious time delays and cost overruns is that it made some major changes in the process, which GAO summarized as follows:


Key Changes to the Transformation Program's Acquisition Strategy


Key Change Previous Approach New Approach
Software Development Waterfall: sequential phases, often with delivery years after start Agile: delivery in small, short increments
Contracting Approach Single contractor Multiple contractors with USCIS as system integrator
Program Architecture Wide use of proprietary, commercial, off-the-shelf products Wide use of open source software (i.e. publicly available)


I can't comment authoritatively on the costs and benefits of the waterfall strategy as opposed to the agile one, but such fundamental changes as outlined above, when taken in mid-stream, must have a serious negative impact on the costs to the government (or a positive impact, if you are the contractor).

Government does a lot of things pretty well, but buying comprehensive electronic systems is apparently not one of them.