On August 3rd, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency that processes U.S. immigration applications, published a Final Rule that significantly increases application fees.
This Rule increases fees by a weighted average of 20% across case types and sees the highest increases on some of the most sought-after immigration benefits. On October 2, 2020, the cost of a citizenship application will increase by 83%, up from $640 to $1,170. This Rule also adds multiple fees for temporary worker applications and limits the number of applicants per application, forcing some employers to pay the same set of increased fees multiple times over. It also charges asylum-seekers an application fee for the first time in U.S. history, making the U.S. one of only four countries in the world to do so. These fee increases will put additional financial strain on employers, families, and vulnerable individuals in an already challenging time.
Here’s what you need to know: Why the increase?
USCIS operations are almost entirely funded by application fees. This sets USCIS apart from most federal agencies, which primarily rely on funds appropriated by Congress. Under the Trump administration, a series of policy changes have made it increasingly difficult to apply for immigration benefits. Additional policy changes mandated increased scrutiny and review of immigration applications, expanded applicant interview requirements, and created an unprecedented backlog of applications. USCIS continues to carry out these burdensome directives from the Trump administration, and says the fee increases are necessary to continue these operations.
The backlog at USCIS had already reached historic heights before COVID-19. In 2019, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) analyzed USCIS data and found that in FY 2019, the overall average processing time for an immigration case was up 25% since FY 2017 and 5% since the end of FY 2018, despite a 10% drop in cases received in that time. The pandemic has further decreased the number of applications USCIS received, and therefore decreased USCIS revenue, but not as much as USCIS originally predicted. USCIS based its income projections on the number of applications received in March 2020, when the U.S. first went on lockdown due to COVID-19.
Based on those numbers, and despite revised revenue estimates showing that USCIS will end the fiscal year with a surplus, USCIS is still requesting a $1.2 billion dollar bailout from Congress, purportedly to avoid a budget shortfall and mass furloughs. In its request, USCIS stated that it planned to repay the U.S. Treasury Department by adding a 10% surcharge on immigration applications. If Congress does not bail it out, USCIS is threatening to furlough nearly 75% of its employees by the end of August, leaving tens of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers hanging in the balance. Critics of USCIS’ request note that it includes minimal Congressional oversight and does not adequately address the inefficiencies that created the backlog and set the stage for USCIS’ current budget woes.
The Impact on Business
The Trump administration has made several changes to business and employment-based immigration policy in the last four years. The administration states that its primary policy goals are to protect national security and jobs for U.S. workers. We could devote an entire article to how immigrants improve the U.S. economy. Immigrants bring essential skills, run businesses that employ U.S. workers, and pay full price to attend U.S. universities. We could also devote an entire article to how the administration’s immigration policies have harmed the U.S. economy to the detriment of U.S. workers in direct contradiction of its stated policy goals.
Increased filing fees could limit the number of employees companies can bring to the U.S. This will impact businesses of all sizes across multiple economic sectors. Businesses will be forced to determine whether they can justify the increased costs of bringing top talent to the U.S. on top of all the additional burdens created by new immigration policies. Companies that simply cannot justify those costs may take their business to friendlier shores. International students may pay top dollar for a U.S. degree, but may find it so difficult to find an employer willing to sponsor them through this increasingly complicated process that they take their talent elsewhere. We know this may happen because it already has. An increasing number of businesses and high-skill employees are already trying their luck in Canada.
Increasing the price of admission to the U.S. will put another brick in the invisible wall. The cost of lost talent and the economic impact of foregone opportunity in the U.S. is incalculable.
Impact on Future Citizens
Starting in October, permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship will now pay 83% more. Historically, lower-income applicants could qualify for a fee waiver. Under the new fee structure, fee waivers will no longer be available to immigrants applying for naturalization. This will price out an untold number of aspiring U.S. citizens with no regard for their contributions to the U.S. and the impact on their loved ones in the U.S. It will force them to continue to renew their green cards indefinitely, paying additional fees with each renewal.
It is also unclear exactly how this increased fee on new citizenship applications will address the citizenship application backlog, including tens of thousands of people who are already approved for citizenship, but may not be sworn in in time to vote in the upcoming U.S. election. Raising the barriers to citizenship sends a message to qualified applicants that the U.S. government does not welcome them to stay and improve life for all U.S. citizens. It sends the message that the U.S. government only wants people of a certain socioeconomic status to become U.S. citizens, despite hundreds of years of American history showing the invaluable contributions and inherent human worth of all immigrants.
What now? If you are a U.S. citizen and any of the above is concerning to you, consider reaching out to your Congressional representatives. Despite significant pushback from immigrants and advocates, the fee increases are still scheduled to go into effect in October. However, Congress still has the power to hold USCIS accountable and address the underlying issues that brought the agency to this point. AILA is supporting the bipartisan Case Backlog and Transparency Act of 2020 (H.R. 5971) to increase congressional oversight, address USCIS inefficiencies, and keep USCIS running in an effective and fiscally responsible way.
If you are planning on applying for citizenship or another immigration benefit, you may want to apply sooner rather than later to avoid paying the increased fee. U.S. immigration is very complex, so we would always recommend consulting an experienced U.S. immigration attorney or reputable immigration legal aid organization. If you would like to discuss your options with a member of our team at McEntee Law, we would be happy to hear from you.