USCIS Staff Furloughs Will Grind Legal Immigration To A Halt
Stuart AndersonSenior Contributor
I write about globalization, business, technology and immigration.
Joseph Edlow, deputy deputy director for policy of U.S. Citizenship and
The Trump administration is about to achieve what many see as its long-held objective of bringing the U.S. legal immigration system to a halt. While the administration would not be allowed to stop processing immigration applications without incurring legal action, critics say that through policy choices and mismanagement of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) it may accomplish the same goal.
“The federal agency tasked with offering citizenship, green cards and visas to immigrants is planning to furlough about two-thirds of its workers at the end of the month after Congress failed to reach a deal on a coronavirus stimulus package,” reported USA Today. “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified about 13,400 of its 20,000 employees that they would be furloughed Aug. 30 because of budget shortfalls.”
To better understand the impact of a USCIS staff furlough, I interviewed Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House as assistant director for entrepreneurship and is the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship. He is also a senior fellow and director of the Technology and Innovation Initiative at the Federation of American Scientists.
Stuart Anderson: What do you think the impact will be on U.S. citizens and immigrants if USCIS furloughs 13,000 workers?
Doug Rand: It’s hard to overstate how bad this would be. USCIS would be operating with a skeleton crew, and our legal immigration system would grind to a halt. By the agency’s own estimates, this will affect:
- Close to 1 million immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship each year.The agency has already effectively disenfranchised 300,000 of these aspiring Americans.
- Nearly 3 million people applying for temporary work permitseach year, plus over 760,000 permanent residents who need to renew or replace their green cards each year. No physical green card means no ability to work. And the agency has already thrown lives into havoc with egregious delays in shipping green cards.
- 400,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewals each year.The Supreme Court told the Trump administration that its previous attempt to eliminate DACA was unlawful – but what if Dreamers simply can’t renew their work permits and deportation protections?
- Nearly 1 million U.S. citizens and permanent residents sponsoring relatives for a green card, plus over 630,000 green card applications each year.
- 156,000 married coupleswho need a final interview to secure permanent status.
A USCIS shutdown would also wreak havoc on international adoptions and humanitarian immigration, although by other means the Trump administration has already brought refugee and asylum programs to a near-halt.
I think it’s helpful to remember that the people who rely on USCIS and who pay its ever-increasing fees are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens, aspiring U.S. citizens and U.S. companies.
Fees paid to USCIS by U.S. citizens, companies and other applicants.
Anderson: What will the impact be on U.S. businesses?
Rand: More chaos. Again, by the agency’s own estimate, each year USCIS normally expects to handle:
- Over 550,000 employer sponsorships of temporary workers.
- Over 230,000 applications to extend or change temporary immigration status(for example, an international student shifting over to a high-skill work visa).
- Over 160,000 employer sponsorships of green cards.
As you’ve shown very compellingly, Stuart, immigrant workers are at the forefront of our national response to the Covid-19 pandemic and our economic recovery. If U.S. companies can no longer process the necessary paperwork for essential workers, healthcare professionals, and vaccine researchers we are in even bigger trouble.
Anderson: Are the furloughs necessary?
Rand: Emphatically not. If the Trump administration kicks over 13,000 U.S. workers to the curb and shuts down the legal immigration system at the end of August, that’s a policy choice, not a fiscal necessity.
We know this based on public data from USCIS itself.
Below is a chart that USCIS provided to the House Judiciary Committee in advance of an oversight hearing in late July.
USCIS Domestic Weekly Receipts.
U.S. CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES.
If you look at that red line (weekly customer volume during Fiscal Year 2020), a few things leap out immediately:
- From Oct. 2019 until the pandemic hit in March 2020, USCIS was getting a lot morecustomer volume (and therefore fee revenue) than the same time a year earlier.
- Then came a steep decline in late March, when USCIS temporarily closed its field offices.
- But everything was nearly back to normal by June 2020, which is also when USCIS re-opened its field offices.
The key question is: How big is that budget hole between March and June? Surely USCIS leadership could have provided this number – and it’s suspicious that they didn’t. So is their failure to provide customer numbers since mid-June. After all, this chart was given to Congress at the end of July.
In any event, the hole certainly isn’t as big as $1.2 billion, which is the bailout price tag that USCIS has demanded since May.
It’s not even $571 million, which is what USCIS says it needs for just this fiscal year (ending in September 30, 2020).
I did my best to estimate the real size of the budget hole, and it looks to be about $250 million.
To be fair, the sky really did look like it was falling back in April, when USCIS leadership first concocted its $1.2 billion bailout demand. But it just defies belief – and all available evidence – that USCIS still needs the same size bailout it calculated before revenues went back up this summer.
Indeed, when Senators Leahy and Tester revealed that USCIS has enough money to get at least through the end of September, the agency extended its furlough start date – but only until August 30, which is unconscionable.
Since May, USCIS employees have been scrambling to find alternative employment, and many have been forced to consider raiding their own retirement accounts. Nobody should be treated this way, let alone career civil servants providing an essential government function.
Anderson: Many analysts believe USCIS got into its financial problems because of administration policies that required time-consuming reviews (Requests for Evidence), in-person interview requirements for employment-based immigrants, elimination of “prior deference” on applications and other policies aimed at restricting immigration. Is that your view?
Rand: The evidence is overwhelming that USCIS was in financial trouble long before Covid-19, as the direct result of mismanagement and deliberate policy choices. I’ve gone over this evidence in testimony before Congress and this law journal paper, but a picture is worth a thousand words in this chart of the cost baseline in the Immigration Examinations Fee Account (IEFA):
USCIS Immigration Examinations Fee Account Non-Premium Cost Baseline.
This is a chart from USCIS itself showing the massive projected growth of agency costs during the Trump administration. These numbers originally came out in November 2019 – that’s four months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, and over a month before the virus causing Covid-19 was even identified.
For a detailed dissection of all 182 Trump administration policies affecting USCIS, a great many of which are directly responsible for these skyrocketing costs, I highly recommend a report by Ur Jaddou, who now runs DHS Watch and used to be the top lawyer at USCIS.
Anderson: What do you think is likely to happen?
Rand: It’s hard to say what’s likely at this point. Congress was never going to pass a USCIS bailout as a standalone bill; the goal was always to include it as part of the next Covid-19 response package. But now it looks like there won’t be a Covid-19 response bill until September at the earliest.
I’d like to believe that, at the very least, USCIS delays its furlough start date until the end of September or later. This will happen if DHS comes under enough pressure from lawmakers and stakeholders from both sides of the aisle. After all, USCIS is about to lay off thousands of workers in places that include Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas – and every single member of Congress has constituents who will suffer if USCIS shuts down at the end of the month.
If and when Congress does provide a one-time bailout to USCIS, it shouldn’t be a blank check. Congress must ensure that from here on out, the agency is subject to much stronger oversight and transparency requirements, and that USCIS is no longer saddled with misguided policy mandates that drive up costs for no good reason.
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