Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency acknowledged Monday that it botched the rollout of new free work permits for crime victim immigrants and is now scrambling to refund money to more than 10,000 people who were “mistakenly” charged.
The agency owes the crime victims refunds totaling more than $4.1 million.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also says it wrongly rejected about 1,500 work permit applications filed by others who — correctly — didn’t submit the $410 fee. The agency is now asking those people to refile their applications to get approval.
The bungle affected U visas, which are set aside for crime victims, giving immigrants — including those here illegally — a chance to stay in the country for at least four years and potentially apply for citizenship. They are supposed to be assisting authorities in investigating or prosecuting perpetrators.
Only 10,000 U visas can be issued each year, but requests have soared, spawning a massive backlog.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in June announced USCIS would issue work permits to many of those in the backlog, giving them tentative legal status and access to some taxpayer benefits while they wait for a ruling on their U visas. The administration also said the usual fee for applying for a work permit would be waived.
But USCIS ended up charging people anyway.
The agency says nearly 10,500 applications were filed with payments and approved, even though the money should have been refunded. Roughly 1,500 other applicants who filed without paying the $410 — in other words, did it correctly — were rejected for lack of fees.
The blunder went on for months, from the June 14 policy announcement to Sept. 29, according to a notice from USCIS.
Robert Law, a former head of USCIS’s Office of Policy in the Trump administration, said the Biden team rushed things.
“This is an example of an administration announcing a policy change without considering operational realities or impact,” he said. “The Biden administration obviously failed to train people or ignored advice that the ‘freebie’ policy would be difficult to implement.”
Mr. Law, who is now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it’s another fiscal black eye for an agency whose budget is out of control.
USCIS is supposed to be funded by fees paid by applicants — would-be visitors and immigrants themselves. It’s one of the few federal agencies whose funding doesn’t come chiefly from taxpayers.
But an increasing amount of the agency’s work is fee-free, meaning applicants for things like asylum don’t have to pay. The costs are supposed to be covered by other applications, such as green cards or business visas.
Those lines of business just haven’t kept up, particularly during the pandemic, leaving USCIS grasping for funding.
It’s already had to beg Congress for money to handle the costs of processing the Afghan evacuees, and it has requested another infusion of taxpayer money in its regular 2022 budget.
Even with those challenges, the Biden administration has invited more fee-free applications, including with the U visa change.
More than 160,000 migrants claiming to be crime victims are waiting for the 10,000 spots a year. The Biden administration said they are supposed to be helping police, and the country owes them for it.
Speeding up the point in the process when they can get work permits is an expression of that appreciation, Homeland Security officials said.
Under the new rules, U visa applicants can be awarded work permits and deferred action, which is an official amnesty from deportation, once they have filed their petition, had their fingerprints taken and are deemed to have made a good-faith claim. The process is known as a Bona Fide Determination. Previously, they had to wait until their cases were further along in the process.
Family members of victims are also eligible for work permits under the new policy.
The agency said it discovered the payment problem during a “routine review of evidence submitted by applicants.”
Those who paid should expect refunds by March, USCIS said.
“USCIS continues to advance policies and procedures that reduce barriers in the immigration system; increase access to eligible immigration benefits; and reassert America’s humanitarian values,” the agency said.