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For every would-be immigrant to the United States, there is a government form. Or several forms. A recent count of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services forms shows astonishing growth in the number and length of forms. To get some more details on all this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Cato Institute’s associate director of immigration studies, David Bier.
Interview transcript:
Tom Temin
And let’s begin with quantifying the situation the growth…
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For every would-be immigrant to the United States, there is a government form. Or several forms. A recent count of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services forms shows astonishing growth in the number and length of forms. To get some more details on all this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Cato Institute’s associate director of immigration studies, David Bier.
Interview transcript:
Tom Temin
And let’s begin with quantifying the situation the growth in the number of forms and the length of forms you have written about. Give us the the top line numbers here.
David Bier
Yeah, so when the agency was launched as part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the total length of all of the forms, and there are a lot of different types of forms that you might need, as you go through the immigration process, the total number of pages was 193. And now in 2022, or now into 2023, there were over 700, 701 pages worth of forms, that the agency is requiring in some way. And so the average form length, so you know that’s just the total number, the average form grew from about three pages to about 10 pages since the agency launched two decades ago.
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Tom Temin
And are these forms still mostly paper or are these online forms?
David Bier
Mostly paper, the agency does allow online filing for select group of forms, but they make it so difficult to use. It’s not like the IRS where you have tax preparers will have an ability to just instantly file from their proprietary software on to the IRS website. The USCIS has created this form, but you have to basically, you prepare your application on your own, somewhere where you can save it. You’re not going to prepare it on their website, right. So you have to prepare it and then cut and paste into the squares that they allot for the answers. And it’s a very onerous and time consuming thing. Because if you’re an attorney, you go through the application with your client, and then you have to file in this very stilted and difficult to use format. And it’s just easier, frankly, for them to just send it in by mail. You print it out, and you send it in. And that’s more difficult for both the agency and the applicants, because they just have not figured out how to create something that’s usable and easy for attorneys and their clients.
Tom Temin
And this growth in forms. Usually a form is a result of regulation and a regulation is the result of some enabling legislation. Is that the case for USCIS?
David Bier
Well, of course, there’s a statutory basis that they point to, but the vast majority of this increase is just based on agency discretion. There hasn’t been any overhaul of the immigration system since at least 1990. Or, you know, some people could say 1996, there was some major reforms. But really, there has not been a major change since 2003. So we’re not talking about Congress coming in and saying, here’s a whole lot of new requirements that you need to incorporate into these forms. It’s more of the agency saying we’re going to take it upon ourselves to collect more information and demand additional requirements from the people filing these forms.
Tom Temin
And what is the effect on the agency of having all this information coming in?
David Bier
Well, it takes longer to process. I’m working on this, you know, sort of a supplement to the research that you’re talking about here. But really, every year is getting longer and longer for the agency to process. And so processing times, for the applicants, we’re talking about a year to process some of the most basic forms in the system, you know, more complicated forms, you could be talking two, three, some cases even five years to get processed as a result of really the time it takes and when you add it up when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands, really the agency adjudicates about 8 million forms a year. If you add even 5% in the time it takes to go through a form, you’re talking about adding months of waiting for every applicant who applies and that’s what we’re seeing is just the continuous increase in wait times for applicants.
Tom Temin
We’re speaking with David Bier. he is associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute. And by the way, all of the people crossing the southern border and arriving by boat illegally, do they all fill out these forms? Or is this strictly people that are trying to come by the standard legal means from all countries that fill out the forms?
David Bier
Well, it depends on what happens to the person who crosses the border illegally. If they tried to apply for asylum, then yeah, they would fill out a form and try to apply. And so yeah, it would include that though most of those people are not applying through USCIS, they’d be part of the immigration court system, which is the Department of Justice. They would however, be supplying the same information. And they also face incredible waits from Department of Justice to get their applications processed. Again, we’re talking five years to get to the front of that line if you’re trying to receive asylum.
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Tom Temin
So basically, you have a system being stuffed by the sheer numbers of people trying to come to the country, then you have a system stuffed downstream by the sheer amount of information and paperwork those people fill out. And that in turn, fills the pipeline of the system for adjudicating these, the Justice Department, the immigration lawyers, who are facing longer and longer backlogs. So it’s getting sclerotic then basically sounds like.
David Bier
Yeah, you’re getting hit both directions, yes, there are more people trying to come. But also, the agency is not becoming more efficient. And you can actually see this, they just released this new regulation, saying they want to increase the fees for all these different types of applications, they want to charge some really staggering amounts of money to applicants and Americans who are sponsoring legal immigrants. And if you look at, you know how long it’s taking an adjudicator once they actually get to the file, and you know, are looking at the file, how long it takes, some of it’s nine minutes for an application, and the applicant is waiting a year, to get to the point where someone is going to look at that file for nine minutes. And so there’s this staggering wait time to get a really brief, I mean, you’re looking OK, did they check the right boxes. But if that nine minutes increases to 12 minutes, that’s a huge increase in the weight, when you play it out, because of how much time, how many applicants there are versus how many adjudicators there are. So it is really problematic when there’s any increase in how long it takes to go through a form. And if you increase the number of pages, you’re increasing the amount of time it will take an adjudicator to go through the forms. And if you go down a list of all of the different types of applications, it’s just taking those adjudicators more time to go through and review them. And so it’s producing incredibly long waits and making legal immigration much more challenging.
Tom Temin
And if you look at which particular forms have grown the most one went in a couple of years from two pages to 18 pages. And that’s the 1-130/1-130A Petition for Alien Spouse that went from two to 18 pages.
David Bier
So this is for a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident trying to sponsor their spouse to come legally to this country. And yeah, the agency, just I mean, nine fold increase since 2016. So they’re just really not looking to find efficiencies in the process. They’re just constantly looking for ways to increase the amount of data collection and what can we do to use our authority in new ways?
Tom Temin
Is there anything that can be done? I mean, the agency would have to voluntarily stop collecting certain information, and they must feel they need this information to be able to make fair judgments. So what’s the answer here?
David Bier
Well, you would think if this information was actually producing different outcomes, then OK, maybe it’s worth it. But there hasn’t been an increase in denial rates or as a consequence of this. It’s really the vast majority of applicants do get approved if they’re legal immigrants, people going through the process. Now, asylum is different. But that’s one of the forms that hasn’t increased in length. So if you look at it, it’s really just about bureaucracy run amok, not about producing different outcomes at the end of the day for taxpayers, who, or for the government, who is trying to make sure that we have security and make sure that people are eligible for what they’re applying for. We’re not seeing any change. So what is the benefit? There isn’t one.
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Tom Temin is host of the Federal Drive and has been providing insight on federal technology and management issues for more than 30 years.
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