GAO: Immigration needs fee tracking

GAO correspondence: Immigration Application Fees: Current Fees Are Not Sufficient to Fund U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Operations

Officials don't have a good way to track immigration applications, making it difficult to determine where there is a shortage of funds, auditors said.

"A fundamental problem is that [the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS)] does not have a system to track the status of each application as it moves through the process," said Linda Calhoun, the General Accounting Office's director of financial management and assurance, in a letter to congressional judiciary committee members. "Accordingly, CIS does not have information on the extent to which work on applications in process remains to be finished."

GAO officials determined that current fees don't fully cover CIS' operations, since the fee schedule is based on an outdated study and additional processing requirements have added to the cost. CIS collects fees ranging from $15 to $480 to process immigration applications and receives appropriated funds for overhead costs. Its costs exceeded available fees by $460 million from fiscal 2001 to 2003, GAO said.

The letter, sent Jan. 5 to Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, included information presented to their staff in November 2003. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 requires GAO to report on these fees.

CIS officials expect to deploy a system to track the application status in 2006, GAO said.

The number of applications, GAO officials said, has increased by about 59 percent from 2001 to 2003 despite $80 million appropriated annually to deal with the backlog. CIS has analyzed ways to reduce processing times, as required in a March 2002 backlog elimination plan, GAO said.

"Absent actions to increase fees, reduce processing costs and times, or both, as well as to improve the timeliness and completeness of fee schedule updates, CIS will continue to need appropriated funds to avoid even greater increases in the backlog of pending applications," Calhoun wrote.

GAO recommended that Homeland Security Department officials direct CIS to study the costs of application processes and determine the cost of reducing the backlog. It also suggested DHS identify functions for the application process, such as shared databases and infrastructure, and transfer or allocate the costs to CIS.

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