For the thousands of immigrants who have played by the rules, waiting years and paying hundreds of dollars to become American citizens, the funding crisis at the US Citizenship and Immigration Service is more than just a bureaucratic headache. Unless Congress acts to get the agency back up and running at its full strength, immigrants who were on the verge of gaining citizenship may miss their chance to vote in the 2020 presidential election.
The coronavirus outbreak might have triggered the problems at USCIS, which has led to a growing backlog of citizenship applications, but it’s the Trump administration and the Congress that have let its woes remain unsolved. The agency has asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding. Lawmakers should provide it while taking the infusion of cash as an opportunity to step up oversight of the agency.
Citizenship is conferred at in-person ceremonies — short but quite moving, and typically conducted en masse. But the COVID-19 pandemic made large in-person gatherings much trickier.
The federal government was forced to significantly scale down the number of oath ceremonies after states put in place social distancing measures, and that has created a growing backlog of applications. It has refused, so far, to conduct remote naturalization ceremonies, which is what a sensible administration would consider.
The logistical snag, in turn, has created a financial one. Unlike other federal offices, USCIS — which administers the massive bureaucracy that it is the country’s immigration system — is self-funded by fees that applicants pay for processes like employment authorization cards and naturalization services. And with federal offices closed due to the COVID-19 threat across the country, and naturalization ceremonies halted, those revenue sources dried up.
As a result of the loss of revenue from application and processing fees, the agency has announced it may have to furlough close to 70 percent of its workforce indefinitely — about 13,400 employees, starting next month. In addition to the economic pain the furloughs will inflict on those workers and their families, they’re going to exacerbate the delays in paperwork and processes like citizenship ceremonies, potentially disenfranchising at least more than 100,000 would-be citizens of their ability to vote in November.
It’s not just citizens-in-waiting who are affected by the agency’s staff furloughs and lack of money. The Washington Post reported Thursday that roughly 50,000 pending green cards and 75,000 other employment authorization documents have not been printed by USCIS due to the “agency’s financial situation.” These are immigrants who have completed every step in the lengthy process either to renew or get their legal permanent residency.
Of course, this latest crisis prompted by COVID-19 didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Trump administration has systematically worked, since day one, to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, which has had the unfortunate but entirely expected consequence of kneecapping USCIS’s funding. By driving away its customer base, USCIS has been left primed for financial ruin.
There might be a silver lining if Congress does bail out the agency. Because USCIS’s budget never depended on congressional appropriation, the agency has also pretty much escaped oversight from the legislative branch.
“Congress now has a rare opportunity and responsibility to provide clear mandates that guide USCIS in properly fulfilling its congressionally mandated mission,” write Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, and Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at MPI. These can include caps to applicant fees, since USCIS under the Trump administration has been raising them; and managing the agency’s costs better, as it has increased spending on vetting applications and identifying immigration-benefit fraud. Pierce and Meissner note that increased vetting, for instance, has led to a decrease in productivity and in longer waits for applicants.
While Congress may not be inclined to clean up the mess from the Trump administration’s persistent weaponization of the immigration bureaucracy to serve its political purposes, it could save the agency from its dire straits while also implementing the accountability and oversight controls that it has lacked. That would both prevent more delays and dysfunction and stop another backhanded attack on legal immigration.
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