The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the country's system of lawful immigration. It has declared to Congress that it faces unavoidable budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a fall in applications for immigration services handled by the agency. USCIS operates primarily on the fees charged to its applicants—unlike other federal agencies, which rely on taxpayer dollars. To stay afloat, it is asking Congress for a $1.2 billion bailout. In addition to this, USCIS will also introduce a 10 percent surcharge on all immigration benefits and visa petitions. A spokesman for the agency warns that, without the emergency funding from Congress, it will only be a “matter of months” before money runs out.
Why the lack of funds?
Fewer immigration applicants due to the coronavirus has left USCIS in danger of insolvency. Yet, there is more that can be said about the agency's current financial instability and what has caused it to reach this point. As the New York Times reported, “some critics said that the agency was ill-prepared for the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic because of policies that had rendered its adjudication process less efficient while bloating its payroll.” The policies in question have been established under the management of Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the head of USCIS appointed by President Trump. Cuccinelli runs USCIS with a certain perspective: “We are not a benefit agency, we are a vetting agency,” he has said. As an immigration hard-liner, he “stresses upholding immigration laws over granting visas and citizenship as the agency's mission.” His approach is reflected in his November 2019 proposal to increase fees to file for legal immigration and naturalization, even for those fleeing persecution—a change that has not been realized but would make fees prohibitive for low-income applicants.
Immigration Impact, the blog run by the American Immigration Council, suggests that “the fact the agency is running out of money after only two months of reduced applications suggests mismanagement might be the real source of the agency's woes.” For example, new policies such as the “public charge” rule, which denies green cards to immigrants if they are “deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps and subsidized housing,” may make some immigrants less likely to pursue lawful immigration through USCIS. Additionally, the agency, with its current focus on vetting, now issues more requests for evidence than it has ever done in the past. This has led to historically high backlogs in immigration processing. The high number of visa applications returned with “requests for further evidence” of eligibility, for instance, must then be reviewed multiple times by adjudicators. By way of another example, extensions for H-1B visas are reviewed anew, despite the fact that these visas are not issued to first-time applicants but to skilled workers already in the United States. As Doug Rand, an immigration policy maker who worked under the Obama administration, put it, “This administration has made every single application much more expensive and time-consuming to adjudicate.” This inefficiency is not due to a shortage in employees: USCIS has increased its positions by 19 percent since fiscal year 2016, going from 15,828 positions to 18,866.
Vox News details how else the Trump administration has led to an immigration standstill during the pandemic: it has “shuttered USCIS offices, closed consulates abroad, shut down borders with Canada and Mexico, imposed a 60-day ban on the issuance of new green cards,” nearly halted asylum processing at the southern border and implemented a program to expedite the return of migrants to Mexico. Though the agency has acknowledged a decline in applications, it has not released official data. A comparison between the month of March in both 2019 and 2020 highlights, however, a dip in applications “across several temporary visa categories, including visas for people transferring within a multinational company, those who show extraordinary ability or achievement in particular industries, athletes, entertainers, and religious workers.” Given that months subsequent to March saw the enforcement of stay-at-home orders and a worldwide economic downturn, it would not be surprising if future data will show an even larger dip in applications.
An update from USCIS
On May 27, USCIS posted an alert to its website, notifying the public that it will begin to reopen offices on or after June 4. It reads: “On March 18, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services temporarily suspended in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices, and application support centers (ASCs) to help slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). USCIS is readying offices to reopen on or after June 4. Employees in these offices are continuing to perform mission-essential services that do not require face-to-face contact with the public while the offices are closed.” Of course, this news does not mean that all immigration services will resume as they did prior to the pandemic; the financially precarious position of USCIS remains in place as it awaits money from Congress.