USCIS Waives Fees at the Rate of at Least $44 Million a Year

By David North on April 4, 2011

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, understandably, is funded largely by fees levied on corporations and individuals seeking immigration benefits.

It also can waive some of these fees when it decides that the applicant has a sufficiently low income, and it has just released some data that seems to indicate that it is losing at least $44 million a year in those fees.

As previously reported here, USCIS recently made it easier to apply for waivers by creating a form (rather than asking the applicant to submit a note), and under some narrow circumstances it makes the bizarre decision that a single applicant can simultaneously be rich enough to continue to hold an investor's visa, yet poor enough to secure a fee waiver.

Fortunately that decision, described earlier, applies only to a small and shrinking group of retired Japanese nonimmigrants living in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, just north of Guam.

Probably in reaction to a request of mine of some months earlier, in connection with its "stakeholder" meetings, USCIS has published a table showing, by USCIS form, the number of applications for, and the disposal of, fee waiver requests. The text is here.

As I have noted in the past, USCIS is an agency that likes to say "yes" to applicants and, in one broad-scale data set, I found the ratio of yes to no at 87 percent. With fee waivers it is 83 percent yes in a recent six-month period (not otherwise identified).

One needs to be careful with USCIS statistics; in this case there are 26 USCIS forms listed; of these, eight are forms for which fee waivers are not available. Despite that stricture, USCIS totaled the numbers of forms approved or denied in these eight categories along with the others which slightly augmented the denial percentage.

Further, despite the fact that all forms in the eight categories are supposed to be outside the realm of fee waivers, 16 waivers in these categories were approved, indicating either a lack of uniformity in adjudication or a lack of precision in reporting, or perhaps both.

The totals for the six months were 67,860 fee waiver applications, or a little over 11,000 a month, 56,426 approvals, and 11,055 denials. Assuming an average fee of $400 (my guesstimate) and 110,000 approvals per year, the loss to USCIS would be at least $44 million a year, a loss to be covered by the use of tax dollars.

USCIS, needless to say, did not spell out these financial implications. And, as reported earlier, USCIS budget submissions to the Congress do not reveal these losses.

One of the most likely fees to be waived is that involving the application for an employment authorization document (EAD); the fee for this one (the I-765) is $380 and the EAD opens the way for an alien, previously barred from the labor force, to work legally in the U.S. In other words, it is an extremely valuable document for the individual.

People borrow money to go to college to increase their earnings, but there is no indication that USCIS encourages aliens to borrow money to pay the EAD fee, so that they can increase their earnings. (And increase their legal earnings from zero.) This despite the fact that other arms of the government (e.g., DHHS) spend significant sums to establish micro-lending institutions in low-income communities which could easily, and appropriately, make such loans.

During the six-month period covered by the USCIS report there were 16,655 applications for EAD fee waivers, of which 14,857 were reported approved. That's an approval rate of 89 percent.

The leading use of the fee waivers was in conjunction with the N-400 application for naturalization; there were 18,028 applications and of these14,767, or 82 percent, were approved. The fee is $595.

Clearly there are cases in which a fee waiver is appropriate, but USCIS seems to be making no effort to minimize these losses.