USCIS Offers Two Faces When it Comes to Fee Waivers

By David North on February 5, 2010

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offers much detailed information to Haitians and their advocates on how the temporary legalization fees of $470 can be waived in the Haitian Temporary Protected Status program.

It offers considerably less information on fee waivers to the Congress.

Fee waivers are a long-established process that USCIS uses with below-poverty level applicants. For the rules see here.

The TPS program offers 18-months of legal status in the U.S. for all Haitian nationals – legal or illegal – who were in the U.S. on January 12, 2010, the day of the earthquake.

In contrast to the detailed information made available to the Haitians, when I asked my computer to look through the 3,985 pages of the FY 2011 DHS Congressional Budget Justification for "fee waiver" it found nothing. Asked to look for "waiver" and "waive" it found many references, usually to the visa waiver program, but nothing related to fees. Odd, at best; two-faced at worst.

You might think that when a government agency, in effect, spends money by waiving fees it would mention it in its budget request, particularly when, as in the case of USCIS, it is 87 percent funded by fees. But it does not. So the Haitian illegals get one message and the Congress gets another.

Over and above an apparent transparency failing here, my concern is that USCIS is hurting itself, and the government's overall efforts to manage international migration, by taking what I regard as a passive approach to the question of fee waivers.

There is no free lunch. If someone does not pay a fee, either someone else (such as the taxpayers) must pay, or services will be reduced.

Clearly there will be instances where a fee waiver for an individual Haitian migrant will be appropriate, but my suggestion is that USCIS adopt a three-part affirmative program to reduce such waivers in the TPS program.

Step One: Accentuate the Positive. Instead of dwelling on the real poverty of most of the Haitians illegally in the country who are now – suddenly – eligible for DHS-issued work permits (EADs), why not change the tenor of the message to one of hope and opportunity? Why not point out that these are the only illegal aliens in the country with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Why not, in all of USCIS announcements and in its conversations with the illegal Haitian migrants and their advocates, make the point that for an investment of $470 a 15-65 year-old Haitian can participate legally in the U.S. labor market for 18 months? And that for workers over 65 (such as this writer) the fee is reduced to $130? These are huge bargains.

Why not draw the parallel to borrowing money from banks and Sallie May for a college education that will lead to better jobs in the future? Investing now to reap benefits later is the American Way, even if it means going in debt, in this case, for a couple of hundred dollars.

There should be messages on this point to the helping agencies, signs in Creole and English, PSAs over the Creole-speaking radio stations, and the like.

Step Two: Linkage with Micro-Lending Agencies. It strikes me that the many micro-lending agencies, notably those funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, could play a useful role in this connection.

These organizations are funded to help the working poor become less poor.

My suggestion: that USCIS approach the funders of micro-loan programs, to encourage the lending institutions to open their doors to the Haitian TPS applicants and others in similar situations.

What better investment for an unemployed person barred from work in this country – $470 to buy his or her way into the legal labor market? Or $130 for those over 65?

Step Three: Banning the use of illegally-secured government benefits to support applications for fee waivers. It struck me as more than odd that a USCIS official, at the January USCIS Stakeholders meeting, spent several minutes talking about ways that TPS applicants could use their participation in government benefit programs that documented below-poverty level incomes to support a fee waiver application.

I found it odd, and perhaps of dubious legality, because, with the exception of a single program (Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program, which he did not name), anyone eligible for TPS would, automatically, be not eligible for any federally funded benefits program.

No one should be able to use their illegal participation in a welfare program to secure another federal benefit, like a TPS fee waiver.

Should these three steps be taken – with an emphasis on the first two – USCIS would face fewer applications for fee waivers, and thus increase its own income.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this blog, please visit our Haitian Immigration overview page.