At the beginning of July, about 13,400 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees, began to receive furlough notices. Federal agencies are required by law to send out notices 30 days before the actual furlough date. Specifically, this means that the agency will require these staffers to take unpaid leaves of absence, but they will technically still be employed. As it currently stands, USCIS, which is a division of Homeland Security, will not have enough funding to maintain operations through the end of the fiscal year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In an official statement from USCIS’s Deputy Director of Policy, since May, the agency has been working with Congress to explain its financial situation. It has asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding but has agreed that it will be paid back to the U.S. Treasury; this will be done by USCIS imposing a 10 percent surcharge to applications. This proposal has received significant backing from the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget. Both the Secretary and the agency have written to Congress in support. If the funding is not given by August 3, then the furloughs will go on as planned; the furloughs are expected to last between 30 to 90 days.
What Led to USCIS’s Current Financial Position
There has been a lot of discussion about what exactly led to USCIS’s current financial position. Some, like Jason Marks, from the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, states that this shortage of funds is the result of an administration that has focused on restricting immigration in the U.S. over the past three and a half years. In fact, the Trump administration has changed USCIS regulations 182 times since taking office and even the 2019 fiscal year brought in $13 million less in fee revenue than in 2018. According to the New York Times, last year, USCIS predicted that Trump’s hardline immigration policies would cause financial difficulties and suggested raising citizenship fees by up to 60 percent.
Another prevalent opinion is that the pandemic exacerbated an already weakened agency. USCIS is a fee funded agency; of its $4.8 billion-dollar budget, 97 percent of it comes from fees from applications and petitions. Since USCIS offices and consulates abroad closed in March due to pandemic precautions, the number of applications and incoming fees received by USCIS has dropped by 50 percent. Moreover, the agency estimates a 61 percent decrease in applications through the rest of the 2020 fiscal year. Its main method of generating revenue has been severely reduced and it is losing an estimated $650 million from the absence of usual fees.
Citing the financial hardships from the ongoing health crisis, on June 22, President Trump suspended nonimmigrant visas like the H-1B and L Visas, for the remainder of the year with the intention of promoting an economic recovery focused on American workers. On July 6, the administration also limited F-1 Visas for international students if their colleges and universities decided to go fully online for the fall semester due to safety concerns. It is unclear if President Trump will continue to suspend programs that are processed by USCIS. If so, its financial situation could worsen.
Effects to be Expected to the USCIS
The agency itself, its employees and the applicants will all feel the effects of this bleak financial state. First, the agency plays a crucial role in the immigration system. USCIS employees help process forms, conduct initial asylum screenings, issue green cards and grant citizenship. The agency personnel ultimately help streamline an already lengthy and complex immigration process. Without funding, USCIS could be left at a standstill.
Furloughing almost 60 percent of the USCIS employees next month will lead to fewer staff on hand to process applications and conduct the agency’s necessary obligations. This will result in even greater buildups in application processing and approvals; massive backlogs already exist due to most immigration courthouses and USCIS offices being temporarily closed.
This will lead to an even longer wait time for applicants seeking green cards, asylum protections, work permits and other immigration services. Wait times are already long, with one having to be a green card holder for at least 5 years before he can receive citizenship; these interruptions in processing will make the process even lengthier. If USCIS does not receive funding, such harmful delays will be long-lasting, beyond 2020.
According to NPR, another concern includes the suspension of naturalization ceremonies due to the pandemic. With budget cuts, processing naturalization applications will take even longer. The New York Times cites that over 650,000 citizenship applications were pending in the first quarter of the 2020 fiscal year. In addition, over 110,000 green card holders had applications approved for citizenship but could not take the oath in a naturalization ceremony due to the pandemic. In the midst of reopening USCIS services in June, 64,500 new citizens were naturalized, and more limited ceremonies were scheduled for the beginning of July. Because these naturalization ceremonies have to be conducted in smaller groups than usual, it is unlikely that many newly naturalized citizens will meet the voter registration deadlines in the coming months for the November 3 election.
Overall, the agency’s budget cuts can prove disastrous for all those involved. It is up to Congress to pass legislation granting more funding, in order to prevent any further delays. Although this additional funding will certainly help the employees, USCIS will continue to lose revenue due to the ongoing suspensions for many visa applications. Moreover, such visa suspensions are likely to endure past this year and continue affecting USCIS if President Trump is re-elected in November.