Utah businesses may soon see a steep hike in how much they pay to bring foreign workers to the Beehive State.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a new schedule of filing fees last week, that doubles, or even triples, certain fees. The schedule is subject to a 60-day public comment period before the agency can finalize and implement it.
The increases come at a time where high labor shortages and low unemployment coincide, which pushes businesses to supplement their hiring needs with foreign workers.
"The need for foreign workers has definitely grown along with Utah's economy," immigration attorney Lewis Francis said. "While it dips during times of recession, there has been a steady upward trajectory in the 25 years I have been practicing immigration law."
In 2022 alone, about 5,000 employment visas were approved for workers in Utah, said Natalie El-Deiry, who oversees immigration and new American integration at the Governor's Office of Economic Opportunity. She added that a majority of the 700 Utah businesses (typically large and medium-sized companies) that petitioned for foreign workers had their applications approved.
Those visa holders go on to work in a wide variety of industries ranging from agriculture, mining, construction and other trade industries to K-12 and higher education, banking, tech and health care.
"It's kind of a misconception that only certain types of industries are utilizing employment-based visas — like for farm workers or for agriculture. It really is across the board," El-Deiry said. "It's not a narrow type of worker that we're looking at for employment-based programs. It's both skilled and unskilled labor. It's those that are filling essential roles or essential jobs within within our state's economy."
El-Deiry said large and medium companies will likely find a way to absorb the increased immigration fees because of the "critical support" foreign workers provide. Although, that could translate to a decrease in how many total foreign workers they can petition, she added.
Francis also stressed that employers may be getting the short end of the stick.
"The bigger employers can probably absorb the cost increases, but they are already paying the lion's share of the USCIS fees across the board," he said, adding that most pay an extra $2,500 premium to get their application done in a reasonable time frame, since processing times range from four to 12 months.
"While the fee increases for employment applications are one thing, the most unfair aspect of these proposed increases is to add a $600 surcharge to employment-based application to help pay for asylum application processing, which has absolutely nothing to do with these employment-based applications."
Utah immigration experts say small businesses will feel the deepest impact from the new fees.
"It will add to the barriers that already exist for smaller businesses and medium-sized businesses, to engage in recruiting global talent through these different visa programs," El-Deiry said. "It's already an arduous and complicated process and then you add in some of these significant fee increases that I think may be a deterrent to our small and medium businesses."
Immigration attorney Carlos Trujillo agreed that larger companies can better absorb the fee increases, which he said range from about $4,000 to $12,000 per worker.
"Those increases are higher than expected, but they're going to be paid by companies that are investors that are putting millions of dollars into our economy. So we shouldn't really see an impact there," he said. "However, those mom and pop shops, some universities, some school districts, some schools — those are the ones that we probably are going to see that will create some hurt at the time of deciding whether to request a work visa for someone or not."
Impacts on families
Family immigration would also be hit with fee increases. Trujillo estimates most people will end up paying almost double for their family members to legally come to the U.S.
"A lot of families will be able to pay because the economy is strong in these minority communities. However, the concern here is that things are not getting better with the processing times," he said. "You're asking these people to pay almost double, and yet they're going to have to wait an average of 18 to 24 months for something to get through. There's a lot of hurt because people are willing to pay, but they also need to be able to move forward with their process as soon as possible."
He added that there is concern the agency will prioritize asylum cases, which make up the agency's biggest backlog.
A necessary change?
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is largely funded through filing fees, which make up about 96% of its budget. The agency stated the new fees — which are estimated to increase revenue from $4.5 billion a year to $6.4 billion — would allow it to more fully recover operating costs, reestablish and maintain timely case processing and prevent the accumulation of future case backlogs.
"These increases are necessary," Trujillo said. "It's part of the system, and I think that the community will adjust themselves appropriately."
Under the new fee schedule, naturalization costs and most humanitarian fees would stay fairly stable, asylum would remain free and low-income and vulnerable populations as well as certain humanitarian programs could apply for fee waivers.
"We would strongly encourage those impacted to take advantage of the open comment period for the next 60 days on the Federal Register to provide their comments to the federal government in terms of what the proposed impacts would mean for their businesses," El-Deiry said.