The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is often referred to as the “good guys” of the immigration bureaucracy. They are the benefits giving arm of the web of departments and agencies that govern US immigration policy. USCIS oversees reviewing and issuing immigrant visas, green cards and citizenship.
In May, the agency announced they were facing a huge budget shortfall, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and requested emergency funding from Congress in order to avoid “drastic actions” later in the summer. However, emergency funding will not solve the budget crisis facing the USCIS because it is the Trump administration’s opposition to immigration that has caused systemic underfunding within the agency, not COVID-19.
About 97 percent of USCIS funding comes directly from application fees provided by immigrants applying for visas, green cards, and citizenship. The more applications that USCIS processes, the more money the agency earns. The more restrictions the Trump Administration places on immigration, the fewer applications the agency receives, and the smaller their revenue stream becomes.
Several high-profile policy changes during the Trump administration demonstrate how Trump’s assault on immigration has reduced revenue and led to the budget shortfall at USCIS. One of the most notable assaults came as the Trump Administration cancelled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
DACA recipients must renew their status every two years, paying a $495 application fee each time. When the Trump Administration halted the program in 2017, renewals were allowed from current DACA recipients, but newly eligible young people were barred from applying — each of whom would have provided an additional $495 in revenue to USCIS every two years.
In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the rescission of DACA was unlawful and ordered the program to begin accepting applications again, but in July, USCIS announced in they would not comply with the ruling. Their open disregard for the Supreme Court depicts how the agency has become a partisan tool in President Trump’s efforts to reduce lawful immigration.
A similar impact can be seen in the drawn-out fight over the administration’s so-called “Muslim Ban” which, while repeatedly struck down in the court, gives immigrants from Muslim-majority countries the impression they are unwelcome in this country and discourages some from applying for visas even if they might be eligible. Each immigrant who decides not to renew their visa, apply for a green card or apply for U.S. citizenship takes hundreds to thousands of dollars from USCIS’s bottom line.
An August 2019 rule change broadened the conditions of public benefit usage that would make an immigrant ineligible for a green card. The rule change had significant negative effects that caused a reduction in the number of applications received and processed by USCIS. Under the new public charge rule, some immigrants already in the United States who receive public benefits, such as federal or state food stamps programs, public housing or Medicaid, may become ineligible for a green card. In addition, there is a documented “chilling effect” of immigrants choosing not to apply for green cards or other immigration relief they might be eligible for because of the confusion around the new rule.
In 2020, the cost for each green card application is $1,140, meaning each person who refrains from applying for a green card because of this rule — or any other reason — results in a direct loss of $1,140 in revenue to the agency. An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that over a million fewer applications were receive by USCIS in 2018 than in the year before, resulting in a loss of $152 million to the agency.
Perhaps most troubling of all are the reports suggesting that USCIS is purposefully slowing down their work and becoming stricter in their review of applications. In recent months, practitioners have reported application rejections for mistakes as simple as not filling “n/a” into boxes that do not apply to the applicant. Another new policy at the agency requires a duplicate review of decisions, doubling the time it takes to issue decision.
In a letter to Congress responding to questions on the matter, USCIS revealed their number of case completions per hour has decreased substantially under the Trump administration. The agency points to longer application forms and increased security checks as the cause for this slowdown, seemingly without noticing the irony that they are the ones who lengthened and complicated application forms and instituted stricter security checks.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, a leading voice on immigration advocacy issues, reported in 2019 that 94 percent of all applications took longer to process than in 2014. In the same study, they found that processing times for applications submitted to the agency have increased each year since the Trump Administration took office. This work slowdown worsens the application backlog faced by the agency and further reduces the revenue they collect from applications.
None of this is an accident. It is no secret that President Trump and the Administration are anti-immigrant. They have taken many high-profile steps to restrict immigration, and many more low-profile steps. Each and every one of those policy changes has contributed to the fiscal crisis in which USCIS now finds itself. USCIS is funded by its customers — immigrants. USCIS cannot be fiscally solvent when its leadership is prevents customers from taking advantage of their services.
While USCIS is reporting that the budget crisis came about because of a sharp reduction in immigration after COVID-19, the truth of the matter is that this has been a long time coming. USCIS’s budget shortfall is a direct result of the assault on immigrants by the Trump Administration. However, in an attempt to shift blame and put a band-aid over the funding gap, USCIS is now planning on furloughing roughly 70 percent of their staff — over 13,000 individuals — on Aug. 31.
The Trump administration and USCIS must recognize that furloughing its employees — the very people who ensure the agency brings in revenue — will only worsen its budget crisis and the ever-growing backlog of cases they face. The proposed furloughs will devastate USCIS staffers, who will lose their income during the still-raging pandemic and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. Furloughs will slow the immigration system even further, essentially stopping all visa granting that had not already been stopped by border closures and other restrictions due to COVID-19.
This funding crisis is deeply problematic and USCIS, the Department of Homeland Security or Congress must take swift action to prevent it. However, USCIS cannot expect to balance its budget through mass furloughs, and Congress should not provide money to the agency without directly addressing the roots of the funding shortage. This crisis was coming long before the pandemic and will not be solved by a one-time bailout in the name of COVID-19 relief.