By Alexandra N. Meyer
A new American Bar Association program aims to better prepare immigrants navigating one of America’s most time-consuming and expensive government systems. Unlike most government agencies, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, (“USCIS”), is fee-funded and relies almost exclusively on fees to operate. In fact, service fees account for approximately 97 percent of the USCIS’s budget. Last summer, the USCIS announced that it aimed to increase a number of immigration and naturalization benefit request fees by a weighted average of 20 percent. The agency reasoned that “current fees do not recover the full cost of providing adjudication and naturalization services” and would leave the agency underfunded by approximately $1 billion per year. Luckily, after two preliminary injunctions preventing the implementation of the fee increases, the government filed a motion for voluntary dismissal of its appeal of Immigrant Legal Research Center v. Wolf.
Although fees not increasing (for the time being) is certainly something to celebrate, issues with the current fee-based system persist. The current fees for many of the most popular forms remain high. For example, an I-485 “Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status” retains its $1,140 fee; an N-400 “Application for Naturalization” costs $640; and an N-600 “Application for Certificate of Citizenship” will set an individual back $1,170. In addition, both the I-485 and N-400 forms require applicants to shell out an extra $85 for a biometrics fee. Clearly, the costs of sending in even a single application can be incredibly high. These costs quickly multiply for families sending multiple forms—one for each family member—to the USCIS for processing.
To the USCIS’s credit, a fee-waiver program exists. However, the program is arguably inadequate, as the agency has narrowed eligibility and declined hundreds of thousands of applications for fee waivers. At one time, nearly any form could be accompanied by a fee-waiver application. Unfortunately in 2007, the USCIS created a “limited list that prohibited two-thirds of the application types from the possibility of a fee waiver.” In 2016, the USCIS approved more than 627,000 fee-waiver applications. A year later, in 2017, the agency only approved 285,000 applications.
Even if an applicant can afford the filing fees, the complexity of the forms may force additional, unanticipated costs. Theoretically, the USCIS lists the steps of the application process with instructions on how to fill out each form on its website, but in practice the website is difficult to navigate and understand, particularly for applicants who speak English as a second language. Once an individual finds the correct form, they must fill it out correctly according to the USCIS’s standards—a task that seems designed to promote failure. For example, in recent years, the I-485 form has grown from six pages with an accompanying eight pages of instructions to twenty pages with forty-five pages of instructions.
Forms also expire with little to no notice, only to be replaced with almost identical new forms. Applications already mailed with the now obsolete form variants are rejected. Furthermore, forms can be rejected or denied if any field is left blank, regardless of its applicability. For example, applications have been rejected for listing three siblings when there is space on the application for four or not including an address for a deceased parent. Perhaps the most ridiculous reason for form rejection are typographical absurdities, like an applicant stating “NA” instead of “N/A” when a field is not applicable.
Rejected applications not only serve to frustrate applicants, but add to the costs of immigration and naturalization. Rejections may not be appealed. The applicant must resubmit a corrected form. Every time an applicant submits a new form for review, the “USCIS requires new fees with any new benefit request,” even if the applicant is submitting the same form type with only minimal corrections. The USCIS may even keep the rejected application fee.
Hiring an immigration lawyer certainly helps to prevent issues that may arise during the application process. In fact, the nitpickiness of the USCIS has arguably made counsel a necessity. An immigration lawyer knows exactly what forms are applicable to a case and can help ensure that forms are properly completed according to the USCIS’s standards. Although the thought of paying legal fees in addition to the USCIS’s form fees may deter some from seeking legal advice, the cost of legal fees are often comparable to the USCIS’s form fees. Hiring an immigration attorney may even save the applicant money in the long run if the alternative is to resubmit rejected applications numerous times.
Despite the benefits of hiring an immigration attorney to help with the immigration and naturalization process, reality is many individuals cannot afford form filing fees, let alone additional legal fees. The American Bar Association’s online program, ABA Free Legal Answers, seeks to narrow this “justice gap.” The service, which expanded to include immigration law in January 2021, allows users to ask volunteer attorneys legal questions regarding deportation, green cards, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, (“DACA”), and naturalization. Unfortunately, individuals can only ask up to three questions per year, but for someone previously unable to ask any questions, this is an improvement to the situation. At first glance, it’s also difficult to ascertain the parameters of asking questions, but it seems unlikely that an individual can submit an entire form for review. Still, the program provides attorneys with the opportunity to remind applicants not to leave blank fields in their forms, or to use “N/A” instead of “NA,” however ridiculous that necessary advice may seem.
 USCIS Adjusts Fees to Help Meet Operational Needs, U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs., (Jul. 31, 2020), https://www.uscis.gov/news/news-releases/uscis-adjusts-fees-to-help-meet-operational-needs#:~:text=Unlike%20most%20government%20agencies%2C%20USCIS,97%25%20of%20USCIS’%20budget.
 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements, 85 Fed. Reg. 46,788, 46,788 (Aug. 3, 2020).
 U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs., supra note 1.
 Featured Issue: Changes to USCIS Fee Schedule, Am. Immigr. Laws. Ass’n (Jan. 29, 2021), https://www.aila.org/advo-media/issues/all/changes-to-uscis-fee-schedule.
 No. 20-CV-05883, 2020 WL 5798269 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 29, 2020).
 See Most Common USCIS Immigration Forms, Nat’l Notary Ass’n, https://www.nationalnotary.org/immigration/knowledge-center/uscis-immigration-forms (last visited Feb. 12, 2021).
 Dep’t of Homeland Sec., U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs., Form G-1055: Fee Schedule 4, 11 (2020), https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/forms/g-1055.pdf.
 Juan Esteban Bedoya, Price Tags on Citizenship: The Constitutionality of the Form N-600 Fee, 96 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 1022, 1027 (2020).
 Peggy Gleason and Melissa Rodgers, Status of USCIS Fee Waiver Changes–October 2, 2020, Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr., https://www.ilrc.org/sites/default/files/resources/pa_fee_waiver_10.9.20.pdf.
 Manuel Madrid, Border Wall or No, Immigrants Will Soon Have to Scale a Paywall, Am. Prospect (Jan. 23, 2019), https://prospect.org/civil-rights/border-wall-no-immigrants-will-soon-scale-paywall/.
 See Filing Guidance, U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs. (Oct. 25, 2019), https://www.uscis.gov/forms/filing-guidance.
 Catherine Rampell, Trump Didn’t Build His Border Wall with Steel. He Built It Out of Paper, Wash. Post (Oct. 29. 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/29/trump-immigration-daca-family-separation/?arc404=true.
 Chapter 6-Submitting Requests, U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs. (Feb. 10, 2021), https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual/volume-1-part-b-chapter-6.
 Filing Fees, U.S. Citizenship & Immigr. Servs. (Feb. 1, 2021), https://www.uscis.gov/forms/filing-fees (select “Refund Policy” at the bottom of the webpage).
 Liz Daneu, Is an Immigration Lawyer Worth the Cost?, Alllaw.com, https://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/us-immigration/lawyer-worth-cost.html (last visited Feb. 12, 2021).
 See Farida Jhabvala Romero, Immigrants Seek Stability of U.S. Citizenship But Cost Is Often a Barrier, KQED (Apr. 12, 2018), https://www.kqed.org/news/11660853/immigrants-seek-stability-of-u-s-citizenship-but-cost-is-often-a-barrier.
 Tali K. Albukerk, “ABA Free Legal Answers” Connects Clients and Pro Bono Attorneys Online, Am. Bar Ass’n (Apr. 13, 2020), https://businesslawtoday.org/2020/04/aba-free-legal-answers-connects-clients-pro-bono-attorneys-online/.
 Free Legal Answers Expands to Help Immigrants, Veterans, Am. Bar Ass’n (Jan. 25., 2021), https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2021/01/free-legal-answers/.