US immigrant processing: funded by user fees since 1882

The first piece of US federal legislation detailing procedures for immigration enforcement was the Immigration Act of 1882 (passed at about the same time as, though distinct from, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).

The first component of the act, as described by Wikipedia, was its self-financed nature:

The first was to create a “head tax” that would be imposed upon certain immigrants entering the country. The Act states that “There shall be levied, collected and paid a duty of fifty cents for each and every passenger not a citizen of the United States who shall come by steam or sail vessel from a foreign port to any port within the United States.” This money would be paid into the United States Treasury and “shall constitute a fund called the immigration fund.” These funds would be used to “defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act.” Scholar Roger Daniels commented that the head tax eventually “would rise, in stages, to eight dollars by 1917. In most years the government collected more in head taxes than it spent on administration.”

The fact that the costs of immigration administration are largely borne by user fees, unlike most other government agencies, continues to be true today. For instance, Wikipedia says:

Unlike most other federal agencies, USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees. Under President George W. Bush’s FY2008 budget request, direct congressional appropriations made about 1% of the USCIS budget and about 99% of the budget was funded through fees. The total USCIS FY2008 budget was projected to be $2.6 billion.

This is true not only of the USCIS as a whole but also of incremental programs. For instance, co-blogger Michelangelo notes that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), announced by Barack Obama in June 2012, is funded by user fees:

Even if DACA explained the recent surge, Senator Cruz should be aware that no federal funds go towards the management of the DACA program. The DACA program is funded by user fees; currently set at $465. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers DACA, is unique in being funded almost entirely by user fees. If only that were the case with the rest of the federal government!

Similarly, when, after September 11, 2001, people on student and exchange visitor visas were required to go through a criminal background check in order to be able to get a visa (the so-called “SEVIS record”) that cost was also “user-financed” — recipients had to pay $100 in order to have a background check run on them.

Angelo Paparelli notes that Obama’s November 2014 deferred action proposals would also be financed by user fees:

Understandably, public and media attention since then has focused on the four to five million people who soon may come out from hiding in plain sight. Parents of citizens and permanent residents, and an expanded class of DREAMers, will be given deferred action and work and travel permits. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now preparing to accept and decide a flood of new applications, all of which will be funded by user fees.

It should be noted that the “funded by user fees” applies specifically to the USCIS, the branch of immigration enforcement that deals specifically with processing immigrant applications, and not to the other branches of immigration enforcement, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). ICE and CBP, focused as they are on interior and border enforcement of immigration and customs laws, don’t really have “customers” — and they cost the taxpayers a decent chunk of money (though still chump change relative to the overall US federal budget). [The SEVIS fee alluded to above is an exception, since the Student and Exchange Visitor Program is managed by ICE rather than USCIS. It is somewhat of an exception to the general rule that status processing is managed by USCIS.] Here are the approximate budgets:

  • USCIS: About $3.2 billion, about 99% funded by user fees.
  • ICE: About $5.3 billion, negligible user fees funding.
  • CBP: About $12.9 billion, negligible user fees funding.

These numbers suggest that liberalizing migration, raising user fees somewhat (cf. immigration tariffs), and cutting down on some enforcement functions would probably lead to significant budgetary savings in the short run. However, all these numbers are small relative to the lifetime economic or fiscal effects of immigrants (even though the signs of the fiscal effects are much disputed, their magnitudes are likely to be at least one order of magnitude greater). This is one reason why “save the costs of border enforcement” is not an argument made prominently on this site or by open borders advocates in general. But in the narrowest sense, the fiscal cost of immigration enforcement arises not from immigrants (who seem to be bearing their share of the burden) but on those who seek to keep them out.

Some might object that illegal immigrants don’t pay any user fees. This is technically true, but they pay amounts that are far greater in fees to human smugglers. And when given the opportunity to regularize their status by paying user fees, as happened with DACA, many avail of the opportunity. Those who don’t are deterred not so much by the cost as by the uncertainty of whether registering themselves with the federal government might endanger them.

PS: See this Open Borders Action Group post where the relative costs of the immigration enforcement agencies and their extent of user funding are discussed.

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