January 8, 2020 / Forbes
Will “Pay more for less service” be the Trump administration’s new marketing slogan for businesses dealing with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)? The administration plans to raise fees more than 50% for many business applications, while workers will need to pay more to become citizens or gain permanent residence.
On November 14, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a proposed rule that would increase fees across key business immigration categories, in essence, levying a tax increase on employers that access the global market for labor. The fee increases come at a time when U.S. job openings in 2019 outnumbered the unemployed by “the widest gap ever,” which, along with a large body of economic research, undermines the argument that immigrants prevent natives from finding jobs.
The fee increases are unlikely to reduce processing times at the agency because USCIS states in the rule that it will not change the policies that have created the longer delays. Lack of money does not seem to be the problem: The average USCIS case processing time increased by 91% between FY 2014 and FY 2018, at the same time the agency’s budget rose by 30%, according to USCIS data, notes the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Processing times became longer at the agency even when the number of new cases dropped by over one million between FY 2017 and FY 2018.
Case processing times have increased in the past few years due to:
• U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requiring in-person interviews for employment-based immigrant applications.
• USCIS issuing far more Requests for Evidence, particularly on H-1B petitions and other business applications.
• The USCIS director requiring adjudicators to no longer defer to prior adjudications when evaluating extension of status applications, which has led to a larger workload and compelled many experienced employees of tech companies to leave the United States.
• The administration employing terms such as “heightened screening and vetting” of applications to justify resource-intensive checks without analysis as to their benefit.
• USCIS transferring resources, including personnel, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
A close reading of the proposed fee regulation indicates USCIS will continue and, in some cases, expand these policies.
Below is a summary of the proposed fee changes by visa category:
H-1B and L-1 Visas: The fee for L visa petitions will increase by 77%, rising from $460 to $815. The fee for an H-1B petition will rise by 22%, from $460 to $560.
If enacted, much higher fees will be imposed on companies with more than 50 employees that have at least 50% of their workforce in H-1B and L-1 status. USCIS proposes in the fee regulation to reinterpret the law to impose an additional $4,000 fee not just on initial H-1B petitions and a $4,500 fee on initial L-1 petitions, as is the current practice laid out in the statute (Public Law 114-113). USCIS also proposes to impose the fee for extensions when the fraud prevention and detection fee is not collected.
“USCIS’s proposed change in how it interprets the applicability of the Public Law 114-113 fee is unreasonable and clearly unlawful as it runs counter to clear statutory language indicating the 50/50 fees should only apply to petition filings where the fraud prevention and detection fee is also required,” according to Vic Goel, managing partner of Goel & Anderson, LLC. “Given that this proposed interpretation is also diametrically opposite to USCIS’s own longstanding interpretation of this provision, it raises questions about the agency’s motivations for this change after so many years.” (See here for more on the legislative history.)
Other High-Skilled Employment Visas: USCIS is increasing a range of high-skilled visa petitions by more than 50%. Petitions for O visas (extraordinary ability/achievement) would rise by 55%, from $460 to $715. Fees would increase by 53%, from $460 to $705, for petitions for the TN (NAFTA professionals), E (treaty traders and investors), P (athletes/entertainers), Q (cultural exchange) and R (religious workers) categories, as well as for H-3 visas for training. USCIS will change the current I-129 form, now used for multiple categories, and rename the forms based on the visa type.
Premium Processing: USCIS proposes to change premium processing. The cost will remain the same. However, USCIS will now process a case within 15 business days, rather than the current 15 calendar days. That means it will take longer for employers to receive decisions when paying the additional $1,440 premium processing fee.
H-2A and H-2B Visas: The current fee for H-2A (seasonal agricultural) and H-2B (seasonal nonagricultural) petitions is $460. USCIS proposes to raise the fee for H-2A to $860 and H-2B to $725 for petitions with named workers and limiting an application to 25 workers. Costs for employers could rise considerably, since H-2A and H-2B petitions can now list 100 or more workers.
Increasing Costs for Workers, Including for Adjustment of Status: In its comments to the proposed fee rule, AILA notes applicants for adjustment of status (obtaining permanent residence inside the U.S.) will “see at least a 75% increase in the total cost of filing forms I-485 [for adjustment of status], I-765 [for employment authorization] and I-131 [for a travel document].” That is because USCIS will now charge separate fees for the three forms.
USCIS would increase the cost of the application to become a U.S. citizen by more than 80%, rising from $640 to $1,170 (although a separate $85 biometrics fee would be eliminated). USCIS would also raise the cost for an asylum applicant to apply for an employment authorization document from the current zero to $490, one of many policy changes to discourage asylum applications.
Doug Rand of Boundless said in an interview to anticipate at least two or three months into 2020 before a final rule on the fee increases is published. He believes lawsuits and preliminary injunctions are both possible.
Businesses are not pleased with the USCIS proposal to raise fees. “Many companies . . . consider this proposal as imposing increased costs on them for, at best, the same suboptimal services they currently receive from USCIS,” commented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The best way to understand the plan to increase fees is as another tax or tariff. It is aimed at admitting fewer immigrants, foreign-born workers and professionals by taxing them more. Given America’s demographic issues, the country’s demand for labor and the increasing importance of high-skilled workers, economists would question the wisdom of the administration’s policies.
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