History teaches us a tried-and-true, gumshoe-inquisitor’s method of uncovering scandal. As memorialized in the 1976 film, All the President’s Men, former FBI agent, Mark Felt, unmasked as Deep Throat of Watergate fame, explained the approach to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward:

Deep Throat: Follow the money.

Bob Woodward: What do you mean? Where?

Deep Throat: Oh, I can’t tell you that.

Bob Woodward: But you could tell me that.

Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that’s all. Just … follow the money.

Congress, or better yet, investigative journalists and documentary filmmakers, should take a cue from Deep Throat when it comes to pulling the covers off the scandal of immigration user fees. Two years ago U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) raised filing fees on average 66%. Yesterday, the new USCIS Director, Alejandro Mayorkas, told reporters that the agency is considering another round of fee increases as well as budget cuts, although the 2007 increase was supposed to improve service on a consistent basis — and that hasn’t happened. The USCIS Ombudsman, quoting the General Accounting Office (GAO), at page 19 in the Ombuds’ 2009 annual report, recognized the pickle the agency is in when a plummeting economy put USCIS filing-fee revenue into freefall:

Challenges with USCIS Fee Funding Structure

USCIS, which is dependent on fees to finance its operations, is impacted by decreases in application/petition receipts, as during the reporting period. In discussing revenue stability, the GAO notes that “a decrease in application volume could significantly affect operations when an agency receives nearly all of its funding from application fees.” [Footnotes omitted.]

But to swallow the “bad-economy” explanation is to take a sucker punch. There are many reasons why USCIS can’t balance its budget, aside from the structural infeasibility of relying almost completely on user fees. To name but a few:

  • The USCIS unit, Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS), has taken over the investigations functions of another bureau of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). FDNS has outsourced ICE’s investigations functions to private detective agencies whose investigators are roaming the country to investigate nonimmigrant worker petitions. According to a January 2009 GAO report (p. 19), FDNS ran up a $99,000,000 tab in FY-2008 and FY-2009. Why should law-abiding people and businesses who sponsor foreign citizens pay for the costs of agency mission creep when another agency (ICE) is charged with interior immigration enforcement? What benefit (the putative reason for user fees) do they get over and above the benefit to all Americans of interior immigration law enforcement?
  • The Adjudicators at USCIS ignore legal requirements, fail to consider the evidence submitted, apply a higher-than-permitted burden of proof, and routinely insist on reams of burdensome and unnecessary documents in requests for evidence(RFEs). How much of the $1,134,000,000 spent in making decisions on immigration-benefits requests in FY-2008 and FY-2009 (ibid) went to illegal RFEs?
  • USCIS “Modernization” and “Transformation” initiatives have been inching forward and backward for several years with little to show for the effort beyond a spiffy new USCIS website. Where did that money go?

So unless a gullible public and stakeholder community want to swallow hard the agency’s crocodile tears, perhaps some patriot out there should embrace Deep Throat’s timeless advice: “Follow the money.”