The agency that grants immigration benefits (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) runs largely on fees collected from those benefitting from immigration, both individuals and corporations. Since these fees fall short of what the agency needs, $131 million in tax funds have been requested in the 2018 budget to cover the shortfall.
The main reason that there is a shortfall is because, in a growing number of cases, USCIS allows application to go forward without charge. It's called a fee waiver. There were a little more than 100,000 such requests in 2010, and the current level (according to the Federal Register) is about 594,000 currently, an almost six-fold increase in seven years.
Here is a proposal to close the $131 million gap and more, without imposing a needless burden on genuinely poor people seeking USCIS benefits.
My notion is based on the premise that the financial strength of the alien seeking the benefit — usually a change of status of some kind, or an effort to bring more migrants to this country as relatives — should not be solely judged on his or her finances at the moment, as it is now, but also on the level of his or her prosperity in the near future.
The fee waiver program currently is based on present facts only; a waiver can be obtained if the alien is in a means-tested benefits program (such as food stamps), has an income of less than 150 percent of the poverty level, or has some other kind of financial problem. If the alien can document his or her claim to one of these three situations, the fee is waived and the matter is closed.
My notion is that many people seeking immigration benefits are on their way up in life, and that the immigration benefit is likely to help with that forward movement. Sure, they may be clearly broke at the moment, but the future is different in many cases. (The boosters of more immigration certainly see it that way.)
So, in addition to noting the current poverty of the alien, as the application is filed, let's look ahead at the alien's prospects, as we handle the question of fees.
In a nutshell, what is proposed is that aliens who cannot (or will not) pay cash for the DHS fees should document their current poverty and also agree to pay the fees later, by deducting it from their future income tax refunds. If they are really poor there will be no such refunds and they will have gotten their fee waiver, but if they do start earning some money in the years after the application is filed, some small part of it will pay off their bill to DHS.
Thus these momentarily poor petitioners will not get a free ride if they recover their finances in the future; and thus the costs of USCIS will not be raised for other users of its services, nor will they be thrust on the taxpayers generally.
It is useful to note that there are precedents for this sort of thing, precedents that mainly fall on citizens. In Virginia, for example, if someone has a state income tax refund coming, and that someone owes money to a municipality, the state diverts the money and pays the municipality. (Some years ago I was the chairman of an appeals board set up to cope with appeals on this point in Arlington, Va.; we had a few complaints the first year and then they simply disappeared, as the practice became accepted.)
The program I have in mind would require the applicant to fill out a form very much like the current DHS form, the I-912, but instead of the approved petition providing an instant fee waiver, it would set up a delayed payment scheme taking money from the applicant's future income tax refunds. If after five years the repayment had not been made, the matter would become moot.
The Underlying Data. USCIS, by the way, does not directly issue statistics on the extent of these waivers; one must play detective, as my friend Ian Smith told me a couple of years ago.
Every so often federal agencies must conduct a public review of the format of its forms, and as part of that review, as shown in tiny type in the Federal Register, the agencies must say how often the form in questions is used. So, if you look at the October 11, 2017, issue, on p 47235, in the middle column at paragraph (5), you will see the annual number of users of form I-912, which is 594,000.
In a CIS blog two years ago, I estimated the cost of these waivers at $585 each; that number times 594,000 equals $347,490,000, well over the tax funds sought for the agency for 2018.
The proposed system, even only half the money could be recaptured, would turn USCIS into a totally fee-supported agency, and perhaps allow for the reduction of the levels of some of the current fees paid by beneficiaries, as well as eliminating any funding from the Treasury.