USCIS Wants to Shift Costs from Applicants to Taxpayers

By David North on March 17, 2010

One would not know that there were swirling immigration controversies from the content of yesterday's hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security on the proposed 2011 budget of USCIS.

The quiet hearing, the first for the new director, Alejandro Mayorkas, touched on a number of administrative subjects, but I heard only a single mention of "comprehensive immigration reform," on one hand, and no complaints about too many nonimmigrant workers, for example, on the other.

While the overwhelming majority of the funding for USCIS comes from fees paid by persons or corporations wanting something from the immigration system, Director Mayorkas wants to shift the formula somewhat by adding more appropriated (taxpayer) funds to the mix. USCIS takes care of granting benefits, such as green cards and naturalization papers; another Department of Homeland Security agency, ICE, handles enforcement.

The administration's budget seeks $2.8 billion for USCIS operations, of which $2.4 billion would come from fees and $386 million would be tax funds; the latter figure is up $162 million from the 2010 level. Mayorkas explained that currently moneys are transferred from fee-payers to fund asylum and refugee processing; USCIS would rather have those activities funded by appropriated money.

Interestingly, no one in the room said anything that would suggest that anyone but aliens and their families were paying these fees. That corporations also pay fees was not mentioned. (Corporations pay USCIS fees when they want to import foreign workers, through, for instance, the H-1B or the L-1 programs.)

The six congressmen present noticed the burden-shifting request, but were not animated in their reaction to it. The subcommittee chair, Rep. David Price (D-NC), in his opening statement, called the request "the most significant shift" and said "currently, the cost of processing refugee and asylum applications is borne by other immigration applicants."

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), the ranking minority member, pressed Mayorkas on how quickly his agency would shift from paper to digital decision-making, and showed, clearly, but gently, that he was upset by the slowness of the transition.

In order to encourage more state and local governments to use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, a system to keep unauthorized aliens out of income-transfer programs, USCIS was proposing that user fees for SAVE be dropped, in favor of appropriated funding. Expanding the use of SAVE seemed to be accepted by the committee members as a good idea. That states and localities are under terrific financial burdens, and might opt not to spend money on SAVE, was not discussed.

There was an extended conversation about the E-Verify system, which allows employers to sort out authorized workers from unauthorized workers; again, the consensus appeared to be that this was a useful program, as Mark Krikorian has argued in an earlier blog.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) said that he had read the Westat study of E-Verify, as well as a recent Wall Street Journal article about the study, and said that he found the content of the study to be far more positive than the newspaper article.

There were questions raised about the number of contractors working for USCIS, as opposed to government employees; Mayorkas said that there were 8,000 of the former in a work force of 18,000, and all agreed that this was lopsided. The agency was complimented by a couple of committee members for reducing processing time on many applications, and for handling its work in connection with the disaster in Haiti rapidly and well.

The chairman, Rep. Price, closed the meeting with a question about why USCIS had apparently over-stated the number of expected Temporary Protected Status (TPS) applications from Haitian illegal aliens. He said that about 30,000 applications had been filed, and USCIS had expected 200,000. He expressed concern about the agency's ability to predict its workload.

Mayorkas replied that the expectation was 100,000 to 200,000, based on conversations with the community, and that the program still had four months to go.

What he did not say, but might have done, was that in programs like these there is always a huge rush at the very end of the process, as all the procrastinators realize that they cannot wait any longer.

As is often the case, what the subcommittee will do with the budget request was not revealed.