This week, members of the House of Representatives held hearings dealing with visa application costs and visa overstays—and the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans was as clear as ever. As Congress and immigration experts continued to debate the specifics of visa processing and overstays, the need for an entire immigration overhaul—an overhaul that would tackle these issues and others more directly and on a larger scale—became even more apparent.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law held a hearing on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and green card/citizenship application processing costs. The hearing marked a divide between most Republicans and Democrats on the committee, as Republican leaders were concerned about passing these costs on to taxpayers, and Democrats were more worried about green card and citizenship application costs becoming so high as to be prohibitive (the cost for a citizenship application rose from $90 in 1991 to $675 in 2007, far and above the rate of inflation). As it stands now, when an immigrant applies for a green card or for citizenship, they pay a processing fee which funds the cost of processing their application and the general overhead at USCIS.

Representative John Conyers (D-MI), Chair of the Judiciary Committee, attended the hearing for the sole purpose of expressing concern over visa costs and the rumor that there will be another fee raise soon. Conyers stated that the costs should be appropriated for (as opposed to funded by raising fees), asking “do you know how many people apply for citizenship and never can follow through because they can’t afford it? They’re otherwise qualified. And so I’m for putting these fees into the appropriations process.” Rep. Judy Chu agreed, comparing the fees for applying for citizenship or a green card to a poll tax.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and USCIS officials were also divided over readiness for processing new visa applicants if comprehensive immigration reform were passed. While USCIS director, Alejandro Mayorkas, believes USCIS is ready for these challenges—citing their handling of Haiti as an example of their preparedness—Frank Deffer cast doubt on that notion. Deffer, DHS Assistant Inspector General for Information Technology Audits, stated:

… the systems could not handle [12 million people] now. It’s something for Congress to consider that when they implement this they don’t have a date that’s too soon because it’s going to take a while to get these systems that are properly tested and they meet requirement and they do the job in place.

On Thursday, the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the issue of visa overstays. Current estimates show that up to 40% of the current unauthorized population comes into the U.S. on a legitimate visa, which they later overstay. At issue was U.S. Exit, a program used to track who leaves the country after their visas finish, and theoretically provides information on visa overstays. The pilot for U.S. Exit finished in September, and DHS is currently reviewing the program but is unsure if it will be continued.

The witnesses in front of the committee provided many reasons for not continuing to fund U.S. Exit. At the forefront is the fact that DHS does not have the resources to go after every overstay. Rand Beers, undersecretary for National Programs at DHS, stated that DHS is only able to review 11% of visa overstays (once they are notified of a possible overstay), and only able to investigate 3% of these. Both Beers, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton, and DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner stated that visa overstays are generally not a priority. Instead, DHS and ICE focus on “criminals, fugitives, and potential terrorists,” which presumably make up the 11% of overstays that are actually reviewed. Without an enormous influx of resources, this policy is unlikely to change.

Despite the costs to taxpayers, keeping visa application costs and processing fees down, at least to the level of inflation, is important. If the cost rises too high, it will prohibit many immigrants from ever applying for their green card and later citizenship. This issue also highlights the need for comprehensive immigration form, which will certainly implicate USCIS, its funding and the ability to process applications for green cards and for citizenship.

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