The cost of adjudicating DACA applications has been subsidized by other immigration benefits applicants to the tune of $316.5 million over the last three years, according to information released by USCIS on Friday. This subsidy was needed because the Obama administration did not impose an application fee for DACA status. Most immigration benefits applicants pay for the application for the status they are seeking, with additional fees for a work permit and fingerprint collection; DACA applicants only had to pay for the work permits and fingerprints, leaving legal immigrants and visa applicants to pick up the tab for the cost of adjudicating their eligibility for DACA.
USCIS is funded almost entirely by the fees it collects from applicants and their sponsors. It is required by law to set the fees at a level that covers the full cost of adjudicating the applications. Periodically, the agency goes through a very complex process to determine these costs, and then publishes a proposed fee schedule, which is open to public review and comment.
The law provides for USCIS to process some applications without charging a fee, and to impose a surcharge on other applications to fund these applications. Before DACA, these subsidized programs were all humanitarian in nature, including refugees, asylum, and visas for victims of human trafficking and other crimes.
For example, the surcharge on the work permit application fee to fund other programs has been about $33, or just under 10 percent of the application fee. Not all application fees are subject to the surcharge, and when some categories of applicants are excluded from the surcharge, then the subsidy becomes greater for the applicants that are subject to it.
After the DACA process was established, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and others (see here and here) repeatedly asked USCIS to disclose the true cost of processing the DACA applications, but the agency never answered this question — until now.
In response to an inquiry from the Congressional Research Service, the agency has disclosed that the cost of processing an initial DACA application is $446. The cost of processing a DACA renewal is $216.
USCIS states further that based on the total number of initial applications and renewals, the total cost for adjudicating DACA cases was $316.5 million for the years 2015-2017. (The agency processed 230,313 initial applications and 989,548 renewals over that three-year period.) Presumably, this entire cost was covered in the fees paid by other applicants for immigration benefits, primarily legal immigrants and their sponsors. The agency further notes that fees for these benefits, including work permits, would be much less today if it were not for the subsidies applicants had to pay to underwrite the DACA program.
To add insult to injury, not only did legal immigrants subsidize DACA, they also had to wait longer for their applications to be adjudicated, as DACA applications were prioritized ahead of family and naturalization applications (see here, here, and here). These delays caused hardship to thousands of legal immigrants and their sponsors.
If Congress decides to create a legalization program for those with DACA, it is only fair that these applicants should pay the full cost of adjudicating their cases. In addition, all initial DACA and renewal applicants should be assessed a surcharge on their application that could fund enforcement and/or restitution initiatives.
Another use for surcharge funds could be a fund for victims of crimes by DACA beneficiaries, such as the victims in the recent fishing boat attack off Nantucket, in which a DACA beneficiary has been charged.
Further, it is estimated that at least half of the people with DACA were working illegally before obtaining their work permit. We can assume that some number of these individuals committed identity theft or fraud in order to do so. DACA applicants and renewals should be required to disclose all identities that they have used, and be required to pay a surcharge that would be used to create a restitution fund for victims of identity fraud or other crimes committed by DACA beneficiaries.
Jessica M. Vaughan is Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute in Washington DC.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Center for Immigration Studies.