US Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't deserve a blank check

US Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't deserve a blank check

The Trump administration’s attempt at dismantling the United States’ legal immigration system leaped forward last month when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) leadership notified its staff that the agency would begin furloughs of employees without a $1.2 billion bailout from Congress. Blaming USCIS’s fiscal situation on COVID-19 and an unprecedented drop-off in immigration petitions and applications, the Trump administration is claiming emergency relief from Congress and a steep hike in application fees is a solution to the agency’s fiscal crisis

The Trump administration is not being upfront with the American public. Much like the U.S. Postal Service, USCIS is a revenue-generating agency, with a budget tied to fees collected for its services to the public. The agency established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 with a mission of administering immigration benefits, had an $800 million carryover surplus by the end of the Obama administration. 

Simply put, the Trump administration’s claims about COVID-19 being the sole cause of USCIS’s budgetary crisis are untrue. As early as November 2019, the Trump administration was projecting that USCIS faced annual budget deficits of $1.2 billion, which the administration used to justify a proposed rule ushering in a significant hike in application fees, including naturalization fees. 

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The Immigrant Legal Resource Center strongly objected to this proposed rule, which would, among other things, effectively impose a wealth test for citizenship and disproportionately impact immigrants of color. The massive fee increases would also inevitably cause a significant drop in new applications, which is the same issue that USCIS now faults for causing the agency’s budgetary crisis. This reality has not stopped the Trump administration from somehow framing the finalization of its fee rule, plus an added 10 percent surcharge, as a long-term solution to USCIS’s fiscal solvency. 

The real cause of this budget crisis is the administration’s conscious decision to transform USCIS into another enforcement agency instead of focusing on adjudicating immigration applications and fulfilling its congressionally mandated mission of customer service. Since taking office, the Trump administration has implemented burdensome, inefficient procedures and policies that erect barriers for immigration rather than encouraging people to apply for citizenship and other benefits.   

Instead of ramping up public engagement and trumpeting the benefits of naturalization, under Trump, the administration squandered precious resources and funded a “denaturalization task force.” And instead of welcoming applications from those eager to make lives in our country, it has instituted a fraud hotline that encourages the American public to send in anonymous tips about immigrants in their communities. This turn toward enforcement is crystallized in unlawfully-appointed acting-Director Ken Cuccinelli’s declaration that USCIS is “not a benefit agency; we are a vetting agency.” 

The fact pattern here is impossible to miss — the Trump administration is using the pain and suffering caused by a global pandemic to further its seemingly xenophobic and anti-immigrant agenda. To make matters worse, the administration is holding more than 11,000 federal workers and an entire federal agency hostage to get its way.

Before Congress gives any money to USCIS, it must demand that the agency interrogate its failures. Congress must not agree to a USCIS bailout without a full accounting of how USCIS effectively broke the agency by mismanaging its money. Alternative options for restoring agency revenues should be exhausted before Congress approves a bailout and strong conditions must be put in place to prevent any appropriated funds from being diverted to enhanced enforcement activities like expanded denaturalization, or the agency’s oft-proposed $200 million cash transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  

Congress should not help the Trump administration construct larger barriers for immigrants, or go along with the administration’s attempt at using the COVID-19 pandemic to secure funding for its enforcement priorities. Instead, Congress must require that USCIS return to providing the basic customer service the agency was created to ensure. We shouldn’t be handing this administration a blank check to enforce an agenda that cannot gain popular support by any other means.

Eric Cohen is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC). The ILRC seeks to improve immigration law and policy, expand legal service providers' capacity, and advance immigrant rights.