US Citizenship and Immigration Services needs an infusion of funds to offset shortfall

Since resuming in-person services on June 4, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized 100,000 new U.S. citizens whose ceremonies were impacted by the temporary closure of our offices to the public earlier this year due COVID-19. In a matter of weeks, the agency’s innovative workforce developed alternate formats for shorter naturalization ceremonies that incorporate social distancing, including curbside and drive-up ceremonies that allow applicants to stay in their cars as they take the Oath of Allegiance. USCIS is on track to naturalize the remaining 10,000 candidates whose ceremonies were postponed by the end of the month.

Despite being temporarily closed to the public for several months, USCIS processed nearly 45,000 applications for permanent residence, more commonly known as green cards, from March 30 through June 1. It was necessary for USCIS to pause in-person services to the public for the safety of our employees and applicants, in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance. Through it all, the dedication of our civil service workforce to creatively solve problems and keep our nation’s lawful immigration system operational has been impressive.

Rather than allowing for virtual naturalization ceremonies, current regulations require that applicants must appear in person’ to take the Oath of Allegiance. Prior to administering the oath, USCIS also briefly interviews candidates to determine whether they remain eligible for naturalization on the date of the oath ceremony, verifies identity and collects permanent resident cards. USCIS is also required to deliver the certificate of naturalization at the time the oath is administered. Further, in many parts of the United States, USCIS does not have the authority to decide how ceremonies are conducted, as some U.S. district courts have exercised their legal right to have exclusive jurisdiction over naturalization ceremonies.

USCIS’ highest priority has been and continues to be the timely naturalization of qualified and vetted candidates for American citizenship. Last year marked an 11-year high in naturalizations at 833,000 for FY 2019.

Yet, the same workforce that problem-solved its way through remote work and a resumption of operations with grace and resiliency to naturalize roughly 500,000 people in FY 2020, is facing a furlough that could send 70 percent of them home.

As a fee-funded agency, USCIS relies on the revenue generated from applications and petitions filed for immigration and naturalization benefits rather than on annually appropriated funds.

Since the implementation of the last fee rule in December 2016, USCIS’ annual revenue has remained relatively flat. In fact, in the first half of FY 2020 revenue was on pace to exceed revenue expectations until the impacts of COVID-19 hit. As we were forced to take precautions to protect the American people from the spread of COVID-19, USCIS witnessed a 50 percent drop in revenue, placing the agency in a dire financial situation.

USCIS notified Congress on May 15 of a projected budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency is requesting funds to ensure we can carry out our mission. The proposal to Congress includes a 10 percent surcharge on applications and petitions to ensure that any funds appropriated to USCIS are repaid. This surcharge will ensure the American taxpayer is protected and the deficit will not increase. USCIS has dramatically limited spending and instituted a hiring freeze through the end of FY 2020. Both the Office of Management and Budget and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf have sent letters to Congress in support of this proposal.

We have all been hit hard by this pandemic. Because of our loss of revenue during the pandemic, most of the agency’s public servants recently received furlough notices, heaping another stressor upon them and their families during an already uncertain time. Despite their livelihoods being at stake, these dedicated men and women continue to show up and deliver, in service to their country.

Congress has the power to act to provide the necessary funding to ensure agency operations continue uninterrupted. As a nation of immigrants, administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, including naturalizing new Americans, is a critically important role that USCIS must be allowed to continue.

Joseph Edlow is the deputy director for policy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

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