USCIS ushered out the old year and welcomed the new in some bizarre moves regarding fees and forms. At the end of October, USCIS announced that fees would go up on December 23, 2016. The announcement indicated that the fee applied to “applications and petitions postmarked or filed on or after Dec. 23.” The announcement also noted that one form, the N-600, would go up from “$550 or 600 to $1,170.” The changes are posted here. On top of this, just when the new fees were going into effect, USCIS announced that most of its forms were begin updated that same day and older versions of the forms would not be accepted. USCIS later rolled back the “thou shalt not use the old forms after December 22 edict to a facially more palatable, “We will accept prior versions of forms, with the exception of Form N-400, until February 21, 2017. However, all filings postmarked 12/23/16 or later must include the new fees or we will reject them.”
First, I will address my most substantive complaint about the fee increase – the dramatic increase in the N-600 fee. If you asked me what USCIS form should be free that is now not free, I would say unequivocally, the Form N-600. This form is the form the results in a “Certificate of Citizenship” that provides proof of being a U.S. citizen for someone who actually is one. It is, for the most part, not for people becoming citizens, i.e. naturalizing (Form N-400 resulting in a Certificate of Naturalization). Yet, this form is nearly doubling to a cost of $1,170. Realize that there are plenty of people advocating that birthright citizenship end in the United States, including Donald Trump. Discarding a birth certificate as proof of citizenship, there would be no way for people prove their citizenship except through a process like the N-600 process. Imagine if every American had to pay $1,170 to prove he or she was a citizen? Preposterous, right? Well, then why do “some people” have to now? “Some people” being those that cannot and do not rely on “mere fact” of birth in the United States. People like Ted Cruz, John McCain, and George Romney.
Now to the sphere of the more whiney complaints about the change in fees and forms. Looking at the old and new versions, one cannot help but notice that the only change in most of them is the date of the form version on the bottom left corner of the form. Compare the old N-400 to the new one. The N-400 is the one form that did not get the “we will accept prior versions” dispensation – We will accept only the 12/23/16 edition of Form N-400, Application for Naturalization – despite there being no changes to the ridiculous 20 page form with multiple questions about being foreign royalty, an actual World War II Nazi (not a modern-day incarnate), or being involved with child soldiers, as discussed here.
Though some no doubt will shed crocodile tears when you read this, the fee increase’s timing was miserable for immigration law practitioners. In the time of the year when lots of businesses ratchet down a little in tempo as do many government offices where workers seek leave and many have “use it or lose it issues” with vacation days, so use vacation days before the end of the year, suddenly USCIS created a mad demand for filing before December 23 so customers would not have to pay higher fees. By so doing, USCIS took a generally quiet period of the year, one filled with office parties and shorter work days, and fewer hearings and interviews, and turned into a time of stress and rush, trying to get signatures, documents, photos, and fees collected from clients and packets assembled and mailed before the December 23 deadline. Why this change could not have occurred on December 15 of January 15, instead occurring right in the middle of the Christmas season (we can finally say Christmas again), is beyond me.
Second, this stuff about postmarks. Look at the envelopes in your mail. Do you see stamps and do you see post marked stamps? Few and fewer. Are the USCIS mailrooms going to know when your mail was mailed without actual post marks? What about applications and petitions filed by Fedex or UPS? Do they have postmarks at all? I predict here and now that there will be thousands of people getting their filings returned because of submitting the wrong fees and wrong forms even though they were dispatched before December 23. With USCIS quite inapproachable to its customers (Who are we going to complain too? A contractor-run mail facility in Chicago or Phoenix?), we will be forced to re-send the filings with new fees. But, wait, the forms are new too. Thus, we will have to track down the clients (who could be anywhere in the world; remember, this is immigration we are talking about) to sign new forms too. Huge disappointment, expense, and aggravation for attorneys and clients (and rancor between attorneys and clients as to how to allocate the added expenses).
I, personally, personally went to the Post Office with a submission to mail on December 22. I stood on line to ask for a postmark on my envelope – a rubber stamp like Sam Drucker would put on a letter. When I got there, the clerk, in reply for my request for a post mark, pointed out that the date on the label I printed would serve as a postmark. I then asked for an actual rubber stamp imprint because of “a whole real stupid long story” and she stamped the envelope. Victory! at least with one federal entity. (Unrelated aside, Isn’t it odd the Conservative Originalist-types want to privatize the Post Office when the Post Office is specifically mentioned as a federal function in the Constitution? “But times have changed,” they say. “A living Constitution?” I ask).
Third, when preparing a filing for USCIS, one most often needs forms, fees, photographs, and supporting documentation of various kinds depending on what you are applying for. The gathering of the documentation can take time. Often, practitioners get the forms done and then wait for the rest of the materials to reach the office. By requiring new forms, all that work needs to be re-done and re-signed. If you have one or two, maybe no big deal. But practitioners don’t feed their families with just one or two filings, so, yes, a big deal. All for forms that have not even changed.
Fourth, lots of practitioners use form programs that are sold by private companies. These programs load client data and automatically fill in forms. Because of the idiosyncrasies of the forms and the data, and the poorness of the programs, these programs do not alleviate all the labor in filling out forms, but they lessen it and give a motivation to enter data into the program. Programmers at these software companies had to update the forms in these programs. I am sure tech people at these form program companies had a very terrible holiday period. If forms were not updated, practitioners had to decide whether to gamble that USCIS would accept the old form or if the person should fill out forms using www.uscis.gov’s fillable PDF’s – the more time-intensive form filling method. And, I remind you again, the forms are not even different.
And finally, because the fees went up, creating a surge in filings, and the forms changed just when the mail rooms are running on lower staff because of employee holidays, down time, and extra days off (December 26 and January 2), we are not even going to get our packages back right away – it may take a month or more for all the submissions to be processed and a decision to accept or reject made.
And so we begin 2017 in trepidation of the filings to be returned, unrested because of the USCIS holiday hijinks, and in trepidation of January 20, when a new administration takes command in Washington and a whole boatload of hijinks to come. Posted January 2, 2017.