Commentary: USCIS will charge $3,000/hour to process work authorization under new rule

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Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is proposing to significantly increase its fees to process various immigration‐​related applications. The agency is largely funded through applicant fees, and the fees are supposed to reflect the cost of processing an application. Along with the new fees, the federal register notice details the time that USCIS adjudicators spend reviewing each application. This is not the processing times that applicants spend waiting for someone to look at their application. Instead, this is how long it takes an adjudicator to issue a decision on an application from the time they get around to looking at it.

From these adjudication times, we can say that USCIS plans to charge fees ranging from as little as $105.99 per hour to as much as $3,033.33 per hour, depending on the type of application. The average fee per hour (for forms requiring fees) will increase from $554.13 per hour to $801.30 per hour. The highest fee—on an hourly basis—is $3,033.33 per hour for an I‑90 application to renew or replace a green card. In that case, the agency will charge $455 for 9 minutes of work. This is followed closely by an employment authorization document (EAD) application at $2,954.55 per hour (if filed on paper, as is usually required and often necessary anyway). The agency will charge $650 for 13.2 minutes of work on an EAD.

The agency doesn’t give a precise estimate for online EAD review time, but even there, the charge will exceed $2,500 per hour. The agency plans to charge $2,172.41 per hour to process an I‑131 application for travel document. The EAD and I‑131 are among the most commonly filed USCIS applications. The agency will now charge $1,614.29 hourly to review requests for specific (or named) H‑2A farm workers (it will charge less if the worker is only specifically named later when applying for a visa with the State Department).

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Private immigration attorneys also operate on a fee‐​for‐​service model, and while attorney fees vary widely between firms and types of service, one authority states, “If the lawyer quotes an hourly rate instead, expect to pay between $150 and $600 per hour.” Another gives a range of $200 to $500 per hour. Another gives hourly rates of $150 to $300. USCIS plans to charge a fee of more than $500 per hour for more than two thirds of the forms requiring a fee. Private attorney fees are also not really comparable to USCIS fees because the attorney’s job is a much more qualitatively difficult than the job of a USCIS adjudicator.

USCIS must increase fees (to some degree) to cover the cost of humanitarian applications that do not require fees. But this doesn’t fully explain the extreme variation in the cost‐​per‐​hour for adjudication between different types of applications. The higher per‐​hour charges cannot be explained by more complex applications either since the highest per‐​hour charges are for some of the easiest forms to adjudicate. USCIS admits in some places that it is intentionally charging more to some applicants than to others because it deems them to have more ability to pay. It is also charging less than what it deems to be the true cost for a naturalization application because it believes naturalization is a benefit to the country.

These extremely high per‐​hour charges are all the more astounding considering that USCIS adjudicators are also taking more time to review forms than in the past. Adjudicators are taking more time reviewing 82 percent of forms in 2023 than they took in earlier years, and the resulting delays mean that the agency will need an additional 3.3 million man‐​hours to process its backlog. The longer it takes to review a form, the lower the per‐​hour charge becomes even though the lower per‐​hour charge just reflects lower inefficiency, not a real benefit to customers.

For instance, the largest proposed fee in 2023 will be for the I‑956 Application For Regional Center Designation under the EB‑5 investor visa program: $47,695, up from $17,795. But USCIS says that it takes 108.5 hours to review, so the charge ($439.59/hour) almost seems reasonable compared with other forms. But in 2019, USCIS said that it took only 34.95 hours to process an Application For Regional Center Designation. If the adjudicators were still processing at the same speed, the per‐​hour charge would be $1,365 per hour. In other words, the situation is much worse than Table 1 implies.

USCIS is charging more money for less efficient work. It is not surprising that it is taking adjudicators much longer to process forms because the length of the forms keeps growing. The average form length has increased from about 3 pages in 2003—when the agency started—to about 10 pages in 2022.

USCIS should be eliminating the number of required applications and streamlining the process through electronic filing. The “discounts” for online filing that it plans on introducing hardly compensate applicants who must spend much more time using USCIS’s difficult online application portals, and regardless, online filing will remain unavailable for many types of forms. USCIS is moving too slowly to create a modern immigration system.

David J. Bier is a research fellow with focus on immigration at Cato Institute. Photo: cato.org

(Source: Latest post by David J. Bier, January 4, 2023, on the Cato at Liberty Blog)

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