The Biden administration on Tuesday proposed a new fee structure for visas and naturalizations, raising costs on business-related applications while maintaining or reducing costs for humanitarian visas.
The proposed rule, announced by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), would boost the agency’s fee revenue from an estimated $4.5 billion a year on average to around $6.4 billion a year.
“In addition to improving customer service operations and managing the incoming workload, USCIS must continue to fulfill our growing humanitarian mission, upholding fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve,” USCIS Director Ur Jaddou said in a statement.
“This proposed rule allows USCIS to more fully recover operating costs for the first time in six years and will support the Administration’s effort to rebuild the legal immigration system,” Jaddou added.
The agency receives a majority of its revenue from application fees, although the Biden administration and Congress over the past two years appropriated funds to help USCIS deal with its application backlogs.
“USCIS had asked for significant amount of backlog reduction funding [for 2023],” said Shev Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“This year, Congress didn’t give it to them. And part of the rationale was that ‘Oh, you have some carryover.’ But that’s where the agency got in trouble in 2020 is that they had a carryover balance previous to 2020, but that was spent down before the pandemic hit,” Dalal-Dheini said.
USCIS lost staff to attrition during a hiring freeze due to the pandemic, and application processing woes were accentuated by Trump administration policies that shifted the agency’s focus away from immigrant services in favor of investigating alleged fraud in visa and naturalization applications.
According to USCIS, the new fee structure would allow it to hire nearly 8,000 personnel to more quickly process both new applications and the growing backlogs.
But the spikes in processing fees for some applications are steep, a reality that could discourage some applicants.
The application for one class of investment visa, for instance, is already one of the most expensive on the books at $3,675.
Under the new rule, that application cost would skyrocket to $11,160.
“These decisions are taking three, four years to adjudicate,” Dalal-Dheini said.
“These are people who are coming to the U.S. to invest money in the United States, not just a little bit of money. They’re coming to invest hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. And then they have to pay a lot of money to do that. They’re willing to do it, but then they also have to wait four years to get approved,” Dalal-Dheini said.
The situation is similar with institutions such as companies, nonprofits and universities that want to sponsor immigrant workers and could soon find the fees prohibitive.
But USCIS is stuck in a chicken-or-egg situation. Its chronic short funding slows down applications, which in turn discourages the potential applicants who could pad the agency’s bottom line with fees.
Like other immigration agencies, USCIS is unlikely to benefit from any legislative reform package that could grant it more funds through the federal budget, taking pressure off the fee structure.
Still, immigrant advocates and service providers want USCIS under Jaddou to be even more aggressive in reassigning resources toward application processing and away from investigations, further reversing the Trump administration’s restructuring of the agency.
“I think they’re doing a great job of trying to get over the mess that was created. I mean, they had a herculean task,” Dalal-Dheini said.
“I think that they are making strides in getting there. But no one’s ever going to be satisfied. It’s not coming fast enough when there are pieces that are waiting years to get adjudicated,” Dalal-Dheini said.