Budget crunch could force fee hikes at immigration agency

Just as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is digging itself out from under an enormous backlog of citizenship and naturalization applications, a sharp decline in applications -- and the processing fees associated with them -- threatens the agency's fiscal future.

In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters on Thursday, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS since August, said the agency halved the naturalization application processing time from eight months in 2008 to four months in 2009, and cut adjustment-of-status processing times from nearly 14 months to 4.3 months during the same period. It also has eliminated a backlog in an FBI name check program.

But a significant drop in applications this year is creating a budget crunch for the agency. "The challenge for 2010 is to be able to maintain momentum in the face of great fiscal challenges," Mayorkas said. The agency is predicting a dramatic decline in revenue from application fees in 2010 and 2011, said Chris Bentley, USCIS spokesman. Officials are now conducting an expansive review of agency operations to reduce overhead and spending and they are considering raising application fees as well.

"We are ever mindful of that impact," Mayorkas said. "Any user fee increase would be a measure of last resort."

Besides scrubbing programs for potential savings, the agency in 2010 plans to expand the E-Verify program to give job applicants an opportunity to perform a "self-check" of their immigration records before they submit to such a check by potential employers. E-Verify is an internet-based system that allows employers to verify the employment eligibility of employees, whether they are citizens or not. There has been concern that the system could be used to disqualify people from work if the records E-Verify queries, including Social Security records, are incorrect. A self-check feature would allow individuals to correct any problems in their records before they are discovered by an employer.

"The program is in its formative stage," Mayorkas said, and he declined to discuss any steps the agency was taking to prevent misuse of the system either by employers or by individuals seeking jobs.

Much of the agency's future workload hinges on comprehensive immigration reform, something the Obama administration intends to pursue next year.

In a speech at the Center for American Progress on Nov. 13, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Congress must overhaul the immigration system for the department to function effectively. Despite significant improvements in enforcement operations at the border and in the interior, officials estimate about 12 million people are living in the country illegally, which Napolitano called "an affront to every law-abiding citizen and every employer who plays by the rules."

"Everybody recognizes that our current system isn't working and that our immigration laws need to change," she said.

"But the more work we do, the more it becomes clear that the laws themselves need to be reformed," she said. Besides a continued commitment to effective enforcement, reform also must include improving the legal flows of families and workers, and a fair way to deal with the millions living here illegally, she said.

"We need Congress to create the legal foundation for bringing the millions of illegal immigrants in this country out of the shadows, require them to register and pay all taxes they owe, and enforce the penalties that they will have to pay as part of earning legal status. Let me emphasize this: We will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows," Napolitano said.

Formally recognizing those immigrants and providing a path to citizenship could increase dramatically the workload of USCIS, which is all the more reason the agency must continue to build on recent improvements in efficiency, Mayorkas said.

How the agency might handle an influx of citizenship seekers depends on several variables, including how many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants would be eligible for embarking on some yet-to-be-developed path to citizenship and the timeframe for doing that, he said.

"I can tell you this: We will be ready," Mayorkas said.

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