The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service recently announced the issuance of a final rule in the Federal Register, increasing many of the filing fees associated with different immigration processes. The increases are subject to come into effect Dec. 23, 2016. The rising cost reflects an average of a 21 percent increase in filing fees, which are being used to cover USCIS costs associated with processing applications and petitions, as well as providing similar benefits to asylum and refugee applicants and certain other immigrants at no charge. The largest increase was attributed to the EB-5 Employment Based Immigrant Visa for Regional Center Designation, which rose from the current $6,230 to a whopping $17,795 fee. Other notable changes include:
- I-130 Petition for Alien Relative – This is used to file on behalf of family members. It will rise from $420 to $535 (24% increase).
- I-601 Application for Waiver of Ground of Excludability – This is used to forgive previous crimes, fraud or unlawful presence. It will increase from $585 to $930 (45% increase).
- I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker – This is used by companies and individuals for employment-based immigrant visas. It will increase from $580 to $700 (18% increase).
- I-485 Application to Adjust Status – This is used to change a nonimmigrant’s status to that of a lawful permanent resident. It will increase from $985 to $1,140 (14.5% increase).
Critics of the fee increase have commented that prior price hikes have not resulted in quicker adjudications or new or improved services from USCIS. Previous fee changes saw similar cost increases without noticeable changes from USCIS in terms of capability or functioning. The last fee increase, which occurred in November 2010, was justified as covering the costs of an agency that was growing in both size and scope. USCIS occupies a unique position within the federal government’s fiscal structure, as its operations are funded largely by immigration and naturalization benefit fees charged to applicants and petitioners, rather than by congressional appropriations. As a result, fee increases are absorbed almost exclusively by individuals seeking benefits, thereby reducing the overall fiscal load carried by taxpayers. According to publically available data, USCIS fee accounts represented approximately 96 percent of the agency’s fiscal year 2014 budget.
The increase in discretionary fees are noteworthy as some fees established by USCIS cannot be changed due to congressional mandate. Specifically, two fees that are required for H-1B filings, notably the fraud prevention fee and the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act fee ($500 and $750/$1,500 respectively) are mandated by statute and therefore cannot be changed without an amendment to federal statutes, hardly an easy task in the current partisan political environment. As such, other fees that are set by the agency itself have been susceptible to changes.
In undertaking any change to fees, USCIS opened a public commentary period starting May 4, 2016. In conducting its review of its expenditure, USCIS stated that “current fees do not recover the full costs of processing immigration benefits.” The shortfall was largely due to Congress’ failure to fund costs associated with asylum and refugee programs, as well as military naturalization costs, all of which was expected to be covered by congressional actions and appropriations and not USCISbased fee increases. However, cost-cutting measures implemented by Congress essentially defunded these programs by Congress and instead required the agency to absorb these costs along with its other standard fiscal outlays. As a result, shortfalls became increasingly common, thereby requiring the price hikes going into effect in December.
While the public comment period has now closed and cost increases are looming, potential applicants for immigration benefits are encouraged to apply before these increases take effect Dec. 23, 2016. As filing fees are due at the submission of an application, and not at the time of adjudication, individuals seeking to avoid paying more for the same benefit should aim to have their applications filed before the Dec. 23 raise. Rishi P. Oza