New Data Show that USCIS Fee Waivers Are Rapidly Increasing

By David North on May 18, 2015

USCIS, unlike most government entities, is largely funded by fees collected from those seeking benefits from that agency.

Recently discovered data reveal that in fiscal years 2010-2012, the grants of fee waivers doubled each year, reaching more than 370,000 in the last-noted year. Since each fee waiver averaged $585 the last time I ran the numbers, that means that in 2012 the agency lost more than $216 million. And as the figure below shows, the trend is ever upward.

Number of Fees Waived by USCIS (thousands)

Source: Footnote on page 8 of this USCIS document.
Data for 2012 extrapolated from data from the first 11 months. No data have been released, to my knowledge, for FYs 2013 and 2014.

What happens when agency income falls at such a rate? In general terms, all of the agency's customers, both the paying ones and the non-paying ones, have to wait longer for decisions. For more on these backlogs see this recent posting by my colleague Jessica Vaughan. Another probability: the decision-making process is rushed and the resulting decisions are of a lower quality than they would be otherwise.

This is bad news, of course, but is usually hidden by the secretive and manipulative way in which DHS handles statistics (the subject of a posting by another colleague, Dan Cadman).

As a by-product of a routine operation, the re-design of USCIS forms, the data shown above were revealed in an obscure publication; they came from a footnote on p. 8 of this document.

That footnote showed that USCIS approved 100,588 fee waivers in FY 2010, 180,240 in FY 2011, and about 370,700 in FY 2012 (extrapolating from 11 months' worth of data), a remarkable rate of increase. It was not that the agency was more likely to say "yes" in the latter years — the approval rate remained in the 81-85 percent range — it was the larger volume of applications,

I suspect that one of the main reasons for this increase is that the agency actively promotes the program. For decades, as I reported nearly five years ago, USCIS and its legacy agency, INS, got along with a fee waiver system that asked the beneficiary to write a short note in English explaining his or her financial situation; then the Obama administration decided that a form should be created to ease the process. The I-912 apparently is easier to complete than writing a note, so there are far more requests for waivers than there used to be.

The increase in fee waivers can also be seen as showing the poverty level of many of those seeking benefits. Publishing such data would, in a small way, remind people of how our policies encourage the migration of poverty to this country; but that's a subject that the administration does not want to discuss.

I am grateful to reader Ian Smith for uncovering this data source.