USCIS Proposes to Make It Easier to Get Legal Status Without Paying Fee

By David North on July 21, 2010

Should you have to write a little memorandum to the government, in English, if you want a lifelong immigration benefit and cannot or do not want to pay, say, $470 for it?

The benefit could, for instance, convert you from illegal to legal status, and then allow you to work legally in the U.S. – maybe for the rest of your life. Or it could make you a citizen.

USCIS has decided that you, under certain circumstances, do not have to either pay the $470 or write the memo to get the benefit. All you have to do is to fill in the blanks on a form that the Department of Homeland Security has been laboring over for the last several months – it is the proposed Form I-912, the Request for an Individual Fee Waiver. The USCIS press release leads you to a copy of the text.

I have no argument with the underlying notion that sometimes a worthy applicant for an immigration benefit may be too broke to pay a USCIS fee, but that is not the point here.

The point is that USCIS, and the INS before it, have been deciding on fee-waiver requests – based on memos written by the applicants – for years without creating a form to handle the requests. These agencies have been writing off a few million dollars every year, for a long time, in response to fee waiver requests. In short, there is a perfectly workable system in place for this process. There is no need for a new form.

There may be no objective need for such a form but there apparently is an agency desire for one.

Think back to your school days. It was always easier to take a multiple-choice test than an essay test; USCIS must be thinking in those terms, because it will be much easier for applicants to seek a fee waiver with the new form, than to have to write an original memo on their own. The new form will force answers from the applicants and thus make it easier for USCIS officers to approve the new forms.

But is that what the country needs or wants? If you and/or your chums can't come up with either a little memo, or $470, in return for what is probably a lifetime of legal work in the U.S., maybe you should not get the benefit. (If the applicant does not pay the bill, of course, the taxpayer does.)

The fee waiver form covers a multitude of USCIS fees which come at many different levels; the $470 noted above is for the most prominent of the requests that the agency has been receiving lately, the full fee for people between 15 and 65 who apply for the Temporary Protected Status now being offered to Haitians who were in this country, legally or illegally, on the date of the earthquake in that country. TPS status comes with the right to work legally in the U.S. The status granted to those individuals nominally expires about a year from now, but if the future is like the past it will be extended again and again and again.

USCIS has expended a lot of energy creating the new form; it has consulted extensively with migrant-serving agencies inside and outside the Haitian community. It has had many meetings, and written many press releases on fee waivers.

Alternatively, the agency could have spent that energy seeking to convince applicants that the TPS fee – opening up legal work in the U.S. for, presumably, decades – was a screaming bargain, and well worth borrowing to pay it, if need be. The agency, at the same time, could have been making sure that all those micro-lending agencies that the government supports were willing to make $470 loans to would-be applicants, as I suggested in a previous blog. But no, it chose the route of a fill-in-the blanks form instead.

If you think that the creation of Form I-912 is a bad idea (there presumably are more than 900 other I-forms in existence) you can respond to this notice in the July 14 Federal Register. You can use postal mail, fax, or email.