U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed the second 21% fee increase in three years, paid for by immigrants and asylum-seekers—with over half of new expenses unexplained. Where will the money come from, and where will it go? This report explores the data in depth.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the federal agency primarily in charge of legal immigration to the United States. Part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), this agency handles most visa applications, green card applications, and naturalization, and provides many other immigration services. USCIS currently employs about 19,000 workers and has around 90 field offices across the country. USCIS—distinct from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—is charged with the administration of immigration applications, not deportations or border security.
Unlike most government agencies, USCIS is funded almost entirely through user-paid fees, not taxpayer dollars. Every two years, USCIS is required to reevaluate their current fees and make appropriate adjustments. The last fee adjustment in 2016 increased fees by an average of 21%. The latest proposal would hike fees by another 21% overall. USCIS estimates that the status quo, with no fee increases, would leave the agency underfunded by about $1.3 billion dollars annually.
Why does USCIS claim to need this additional revenue?
This pie chart displays the proposed expenses with the new rule's revenue. Notable is approximately $112 million dollars—10% of new revenue—slated for an unprecedented and controversial direct transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which detains and removes unauthorized migrants.
Net additional costs includes non-pay general expenses associated with onboarding staff, secure mail shipping, increased background investigations, headquarters consolidation, and other "additional resources to sustain current operations necessary for achieving USCIS’ strategic goals.” Additionally, the allocation of about 57% of new revenue is completely unexplained in public documentation about the new proposed fee rule.
USCIS has also publicly stated that this increased revenue will not decrease immigration application backlogs nor decrease application wait times any time soon. From the proposal: "USCIS does not believe the level of effort for future adjudications will decrease ... USCIS estimates that it will take several years before USCIS backlogs decrease measurably.”
Where would the extra revenue come from?
Some of this new revenue (just over $100 million) would come from entirely new fees imposed on asylum applications and DACA renewal applications.
Another big chunk of revenue (over $300 million) would come from eliminating fee waivers for lower-income applicants, including immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship.
The next biggest revenue category (about $400 million) would come from hiking existing fees—see specific examples in the section below.
By far the biggest new source of revenue (about $640 million) would come from new fees on travel and work permits that are currently not subject to fees—including work permits for asylum-seekers and most green card applicants.
Who would be affected by the fee increases?
While USCIS's proposal would change fees for over 60 different form types, this chart focuses on the most dramatic fee increases for relatively high-volume cases.
Family history enthusiasts would pay $320 more for genealogy records—almost six times as much as currently—and they are not pleased.
Businesses would pay higher fees for all categories of temporary workers, including skilled workers (H-1B), agricultural workers (H-2A), and non-agricultural seasonal workers (H-2B).
Green card applicants would pay much higher fees, since work and travel permits would now require separate fees. For a spouse seeking a marriage-based green card, the total expenses for the process would increase by nearly a thousand dollars, from $1,760 to $2,750. Recently married couples would have an extra fee hike of $165 to obtain permanent green cards.
Citizenship applicants would pay much higher fees, with the main application for naturalization (N-400) going up by $530—nearly twice as much as its current cost (although applicants would no longer have to pay a separate $85 biometrics fee).
Asylum seekers would have to pay an unprecedented new $50 application fee, as well as the full work permit fee. There would be significant burdens on other humanitarian programs as well, including the unlawful presence waiver (applied for using I-601A) that allows permission to return to the United States after applying for a green card, as well as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects from deportation unauthorized immigrants who were originally brought to the country as children.
The largest percentage fee increase is for the I-929, which grants a temporary visa for family members of a crime victim. Applicants will now pay $1,285 more, making the form nearly 6.6 times as expensive as its current cost.
How have USCIS fees changed over time?
The chart below shows how the price for the N-400, the naturalization form required for citizenship, has changed over time compared to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Here we use the CPI—which tracks how the weighted average price of U.S. goods changes over time—pegged to an initial value of $35, to match the N-400 form's cost in 1985.
The N-400 fees have increased much more than the CPI. USCIS is supposed to reevaluate their fee structure every two years, but does not always opt to change fees. The most notable fee increases were in 2007 and now the proposed increase in 2019.
The State of New American Citizenship | This report from Boundless Immigration explains the citizenship process and the worrisome national trends among processing times, application backlogs, and application denials.
LiveStats: Immigration and Citizenship | A comprehensive data hub for immigration statistics, available for every state, county, and city in the United States.
About the Data
Boundless aggregated and analyzed data that USCIS released to the public in its proposed fee rule and related documents. USCIS recently revised its expense estimates—notably reducing the amount slated for transfer to ICE from $208 million down to $112 million—which are reflected in this report. CPI values were generated via the Bureau of Labor Statistics' CPI Inflation Calculator.