Wednesday, May 20, 2020

USCIS financial crisis means a crisis for immigrants seeking benefits

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is the agency within DHS tasked with administering immigration benefits, such as green cards, visas, DACA, asylum, and work permits. They are funded by user-fees. The closure of USCIS offices to mitigate covid-19 has suspended many of the immigration benefits that generate those fees. And the agency is taking a hit: an internal email circulated by acting head Joseph Edlow to USCIS staff says that the agency is experiencing a financial crisis and will exhaust its funding this summer.  

"Without congressional intervention, we risk not being able to make payroll and will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat."

The email was written to employees and reported on by Buzzfeed News.

Nine USCIS employees told BuzzFeed News they feared that the downturn in funding would lead to lost jobs, decreased capacity to complete cases, and correspondingly a major decline in the number of immigrants obtaining key benefits and exacerbation of significant backlogs on nearly every benefit it adjudicates.

Where there are differences of opinion is whether this crisis began with the pandemic or simply worsens existing problems. Officially the problem is the pandemic. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue and is seeking a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people,” a USCIS spokesperson said in a statement. 

But one USCIS officer said, “Agency leadership blaming this on the pandemic instead of horrible mismanagement and misguided policy priorities is insulting. The goal of the administration since the start has been to reduce all immigration, not just illegal. This is just furthering that goal along: reducing legal immigration.” Ur Jaddou, former USCIS chief counsel, said part of the blame is the diversion of necessary funds to policies implemented under the Trump administration that have led to more onerous processing, like additional interviews for certain visas and requests for evidence that gave the government grounds to deny permanent residency or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits. “The pandemic is simply something on top of it,” said Jaddou. Other critics point out that volume of adjudications was up, but so was agency spending.

The USCIS spokesperson said they expect applications will dip by 61% through the end of September and they are seeking $1.2 billion from Congress to continue. The White House has not yet backed up that request and some speculate they may not, instead letting the agency flounder and benefits cease. 


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