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Fee Hikes or Federal Funding? Either Way, a Bigger Budget Is Needed to Tackle Immigration Backlogs

Apr 5, 2023

A wad of cash

Democratic lawmakers have called on the federal government to significantly amp up immigration spending to tackle the ever-growing application backlog.

In a letter addressed to the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Representatives Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) requested that the government double the funding allocated to immigration in President Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget request “to support application processing and the reduction of backlogs within asylum, field, and service center offices.”

Despite the call for federal funding, USCIS is primarily funded by fees charged to applicants for various immigration services, such as filing petitions, applications, and requests for immigration benefits.

These fees are determined by a complex fee schedule that takes into account the cost of processing each type of application, the administrative expenses of running the agency, and the need to maintain a reserve for unexpected expenses or changes in demand for services.

In addition to filing fees, USCIS may also receive funding from other sources, such as grants or donations, but these are relatively small in comparison to the agency’s overall dependence on costs paid by applicants. USCIS receives roughly 96% of its funding from filing fees alone.

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To address growing budget concerns, USCIS recently proposed an increase in filing fees for nearly every visa application type, with some categories set to double in cost. Announced in January 2023, the new fee structure could go into effect as soon as May 2023. The agency estimates that proposed fee increases will bring in an additional $1.9 billion per year to the agency.

USCIS is required to review its fee structure every two years. Fees haven’t changed since 2016, and government officials have determined that the current fees are not enough to support immigration services or make a dent in current application backlogs. The most recent government data shows a backlog of 8.6 million applications and a 50% increase in processing times between 2017 and 2021.

The staggering backlog has been attributed to a combination of factors, including staffing shortages, previous COVID-19 related delays and reduced capacity, and increased demand for certain types of applications.

Whether through proposed fee hikes shouldered by immigrants, or through an increase in federal funding, a bigger immigration budget is crucial to tackling current application backlogs and lengthy processing times. In their letter, Correa and Goldman reiterated USCIS funding is “critical in supporting our nation’s commitment to the American Dream and of a fair and humane immigration system.”

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