In yet another setback for the U.S. immigration system, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may have to furlough over half of its workforce—unless Congress can offer a $1.2 billion bailout to address its deficit. The federal agency is responsible for processing applications for asylum, visas, green cards, citizenship, and other programs to help immigrants live and work in the U.S.
USCIS is funded by fees that are collected as it processes applications. But as the Trump administration has imposed a range of restrictions to make it harder for immigrants to obtain legal immigration status, USCIS has mismanaged its way from an $800 million surplus to its $1.2 billion deficit over the past three years.
When USCIS is working as it should, it serves as the backbone of our legal immigration system. It was intended to function as a service-based agency, but under the Trump administration, the agency has prioritized immigration enforcement activities, like denaturalization and providing administrative support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). USCIS has also made unnecessary work for itself by instituting practices like “extreme vetting” and not waiving interview requirements for applications that don’t raise any concerns—contributing to a huge backlog of applications.
These problems are compounded by the Trump administration’s broader anti-immigrant agenda, instituting policies like the Muslim ban, the “public charge” rule, and the “Remain in Mexico” program. These policies have severely restricted who qualifies for certain immigration statuses, further reducing USCIS revenues through application and renewal fees.
It’s imperative that the agency’s current budget crisis does not weaken our ability to welcome immigrants and visitors into the country. Congress should give USCIS the money it needs to continue its work—but that money must have strings attached to stop the administration from further using the agency to further its xenophobic agenda.
Congress must ensure that any funding bill for USCIS prioritizes:
Improving access and affordability to immigration seeking legal immigration status.
Fees for things like green cards or DACA renewals are a significant barrier to many immigrants, says Lloyd Munjack, who provides legal services with the AFSC Immigrant Rights Program in Red Bank, New Jersey. For example, the typical application fee for a family-based green card application is $1,760, a fee for a domestic violence visa waiver is $930, and a fee for a naturalization application is $725. USCIS frequently denies requests for fee waivers—in one case, a client living in a homeless shelter was denied a waiver, Lloyd says.
USCIS should also:
- eliminate recently implemented barriers to immigration, such as the public charge rule.
- stop charging fees for asylum or other humanitarian applications.
- stop increasing application or renewal fees.
- update procedures to protect public health in this COVID-19 pandemic. That would include allowing for virtual naturalization ceremonies and interviews, reusing existing biometrics on file for clients instead of requiring the collection of new data, and extending deadlines for applications and renewals.
Ensuring that USCIS acts only as a service provider—not as an enforcement agency.
In previous years, USCIS had exercised discretion when individuals applying for immigration benefits were denied. Now the agency issues “notices to appear” to practically all individuals whose applications are denied, placing them in the deportation pipeline, Lloyd notes.
To counter this trend toward enforcement, USCIS must be barred from:
- transferring any of its budget to immigration enforcement agencies.
- volunteering staff time to work with ICE or Customs and Border Protection.
- spending their money on denaturalization of U.S. citizens.
Increasing transparency and accountability at the agency.
Processing times for applications among AFSC clients in Newark and Red Bank have doubled—or even tripled—in recent years. Applications for adjustment of status to lawful permanent residence used to take around six months to a year—now, it’s closer to two years.
What’s more, applications are now being rejected by USCIS on a wholesale level, for little to no reason, Lloyd says. People applying for asylum or U visas based on domestic violence, for example, have had applications rejected for not writing “N/A” or “None” in a field on a form where the answer is obviously not applicable. Applications are also rejected and returned without specifying the alleged deficiency, as in the case with a recent application we submitted for a DACA recipient. In effect, USCIS is uniformly denying immigrants benefits to which they are entitled to under the law.
Congress must require USCIS to:
- reduce its backlog of applications.
- provide better reporting on wait times.
- fix the mismanagement that allowed it to go from $800 million in budget surplus to a $1.2 billion deficit in three years.
USCIS is a critical part of our legal immigration system, and Congress must take action to ensure it continues to function as it was intended—as a service-based agency to assist immigrants who want to live and work in the U.S. As the Trump administration continues to stoke racism and further restrict our legal immigration system, we must provide funding to prevent furloughs at USCIS and institute strict guardrails to safeguard our ability to welcome all immigrants to the U.S.