By Adriel Orozco | Immigration Impact
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) finalized its long-awaited fee rule on January 30, which impacts the filing costs for almost all the agency’s applications. The new fees will take effect April 1, 2024.
The agency’s fee increases significantly impact the cost for family-based and employment-based applications and petitions. In addition, USCIS is charging a new Asylum Program Fee to be paid by certain employers. This fee will fund asylum operations, including those related to the Biden administration’s Asylum Processing Rule, which allows USCIS officers, instead of immigration judges, to conduct asylum merits interviews for certain recent entrants. The agency also expanded several fee exemptions for humanitarian-based petitions while broadening the eligibility criteria for the reduced fee for naturalization applications.
By statute, USCIS is required to review its fee structure every two years. Unlike many other federal agencies, USCIS’s operations rely primarily—nearly 96%—on user fees. The last time USCIS proposed fee increases was in 2020, but their implementation was halted in court. As a result, USCIS has been relying on its 2016 fees. The new rule aims to account for inflation and to cover the overall costs of its services.
Employers will feel the brunt of the fee changes
The largest increase in fees undoubtedly fall on employer-based petitions. In addition to the $600 Asylum Program Fee for certain employers, USCIS will also increase fees for processing petitions for temporary and permanent workers (Forms I-129, I-129CW, and I-140). Last year, USCIS proposed to increase these fees for all employers. The American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted a comment raising concerns about the detrimental impacts these fees could have on small businesses and similar entities. In the final rule, USCIS decided to charge lower filing and asylum program fees to small employers (maximum of 25 full-time employees) and lower filing and no asylum program fee to nonprofits.
In addition, employers registering for the opportunity to file a petition for an H-1B (specialty occupation) worker also will see an increase in the registration fee from $10 to $215, which will take effect for the registration period in March 2025. USCIS has confirmed that the registration fee for H-1B “cap” numbers (available beginning October 1, 2024) that occurs March 2024 will remain $10. For-profit employers with more than 25 employees petitioning for an H-1B worker starting in 2025 will see about a 239% increase in their total costs as compared to 2016. These new fees are in addition to the increase in premium processing costs that will take effect February 26, 2024.
Residency and family-based petitions will get more expensive
USCIS also made changes to the lawful permanent residency filing fees. Since 2008, the filing fee for a green card application also covered the cost of work and travel authorization requests. Given that family-based residency applications are currently taking 12.3 months to process on average, this provided interim benefits to applicants while their green cards were adjudicated. To “encourage” applicants to only file requests that are needed, USCIS will unbundle these forms and require a separate fee for each. However, instead of charging the full fee for work authorization, it will charge half the full price if the request is filed concurrently with the residency application. There will be no discount for travel authorization.
This change, coupled with an online filing discount, creates a range of fees for aspiring green card holders. For example, an applicant through marriage applying within the United States would pay between $2,065 to $3,005 if they wanted to obtain travel and work authorization. This is compared to a standard fee of $1,760 under the 2016 fee rule.
The filing fee for an immigrant investor for a petition to remove the conditions from their permanent residence has increased from $3,750 (without biometrics) to $9,525, a nearly three-fold increase.
New fee exemptions for humanitarian and naturalization applicants
USCIS has also taken measures to remove fee-related barriers for vulnerable applicants pursuing humanitarian visas. The agency expanded fee exemptions for all forms associated with the processing of a U visa (survivors of certain crimes), T visa (survivors of human trafficking), VAWA (survivors of abuse by certain U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident family members) and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (youth abandoned, abused, or neglected by one or both parents), among others. The stated goal of the agency was to create parity among the humanitarian-based forms of relief.
Middle-income and working-class applicants for naturalization will also see some relief as USCIS expanded eligibility for a reduced fee. Previously, individuals whose incomes were between 150% and 200% of the federal poverty guidelines could pay the lower cost. However, the new rule widens the eligible population to those whose incomes fall between 150% and 400%.
USCIS to provide $50 discount to online filers
In its aim to encourage efficiency and affordability, USCIS is implementing a discount for online filers. Last year, USCIS proposed a range of discounts based on the type of form filed but opted to reduce the filing fees by $50 across the board in its final rule. In its comment to the proposed fee rule, the American Immigration Council and AILA noted that this discount was premature as there are only a limited number of forms available online and “there are significant issues with those that are available.” Nevertheless, USCIS indicates that it hopes this discount will encourage more applicants to rely on its online system as it expands the types of forms for online filing.
Impact of New Fees on USCIS’s Backlog
For years USCIS has struggled to timely process immigration benefits caused by the lingering effects of the agency’s reduced operational capacity during the pandemic due to a sharp drop in revenue, shifting policies aimed at restricting legal immigration under the Trump administration, and technological deficiencies. In addition, USCIS has experienced a growth in low or no fee humanitarian applications, including for Temporary Protected Status and requests under the Biden administration’s new parole programs.
USCIS notes that these new fee increases are meant to allow it to keep pace with incoming cases and avoid future processing backlogs but that it will still require congressional support to eliminate its current backlogs. Despite a total of $275 million appropriation in 2021 and 2022, Congress has not recognized the need to provide USCIS with additional or recurring funding.
As a result, despite these fee increases, some of which are substantial, they may not translate into immediate improvement in USCIS’s processing times.