National Immigration Forum

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It’s Time to Re-Think The Way Immigration Services are Funded

September 24, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


Out of Money



An article in the Los Angeles Times on September 24 quotes the new Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as saying that the immigration agency is facing “financial challenges.”  For the fiscal year that ends at the end of September, the agency faces a $118 million shortfall.


The agency is scrambling to make up the shortfall.  According to the Times article, Director Mayorkas is examining “all of the options that are available” to make up for the shortfall.  This includes raising immigration application fees. That would not be a good idea.


Application fees took a big jump in 2007.  After a surge of applications from immigrants trying to beat the fee increase deadline, applications for a variety of immigration benefits plummeted.  For example, naturalization application fees went up 69%.  In Los Angeles, according to the article, the number of naturalization applications in the fiscal year after the fee increase were less than one-quarter of what they were in the year of the fee increase.


Among the reasons for the decline is the ability of immigrants to pay the increased fees, especially given the state of the economy.  To the extent the fee increases of 2007 have discouraged immigrants from applying for immigration benefits, another fee increase might just exacerbate the problem.  Increased revenue per application will be offset by declining applications.


The way the agency is funded is just not working.  Congress requires the agency be (almost) completely self-funded from application fees.  However, huge swings from year to year in the number of immigrants applying for immigration benefits (and paying the fees) make it difficult to sustain any given level of operations. 


Over the past several years, a typical cycle goes something like this:  There is a surge in applications (prior to a fee increase, or for some other reason).  There are not enough adjudicators to handle the surge and a backlog of applications develops.  The unexpected additional revenue that comes in with the surge in applications allows for the hiring of additional staff.  There is a lag between the time the money is in hand and the time new staff can be hired and trained.  By then, a significant backlog has developed.  The newly-hired staff work through the backlog, but applications drop, and there is no longer the revenue to support the higher staffing levels. 


The agency now finds itself at that point in the cycle: fully-staffed for a much higher level of applications and incoming revenue.  Something has to change.


We will continue to explore the issue of immigration fees in future blog posts, as this latest funding crisis plays out.


Photo by Joshua Davis

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