If the immigration agency shuts down, how will we welcome aspiring Americans?

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Buried beneath the headlines of coronavirus numbers and electoral politics, another storm is quickly brewing. By the end of August, the government agency singularly tasked with welcoming aspiring Americans to this country faces an unprecedented shutdown.

As former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees, civil servants with a combined 18 years of experience under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, we have seen how the agency can deliver on its mission. We know firsthand how seriously USCIS employees take their work, how they believe in our immigration system’s integrity, and how they want the agency to fulfill their mission to decide who receives immigration benefits. It would be a travesty for the agency to face widespread furloughs.

In May, USCIS officials notified Congress that they faced a massive budget shortfall and would need $1.2 billion in emergency funding to stay afloat. By early July, the agency had sent furlough notices to 13,400 employees, two-thirds of its staff nationwide. USCIS is primarily funded by the application fees paid by immigrants and their sponsors — not by federal funding — so this request is extraordinary. 

The agency’s leadership has claimed that the budget shortfall results from the coronavirus and the accompanying drop in petition and application requests. While this may, in a small part, be true, the primary cause is mismanagement and inefficiencies over the past few years.  

This includes an irresponsible drawdown of a significant agency surplus early in the Trump administration, the excessive hiring of additional staff to search for fraud, and unreasonably cumbersome, time-consuming layers to the decision-making process, significantly slowing processing. Ill-advised policies such as the public charge “wealth test” and duplicative requirements for in-person interviews, even when not necessary for determining eligibility, have compounded the problem.

We have already begun to see the impact of this budget shortfall. For example, because USCIS cannot guarantee it will have the funding to pay a contracted printer, it has dramatically scaled back its printing of work permits and green cards for people who have been approved to live and work in the United States. This lack of documentation makes it impossible for people to support their families, obtain a driver’s license, or prove that they are in the U.S. lawfully. 

If USCIS staff are furloughed next month, the impact will be felt by families, businesses, and communities nationwide. This is not just an issue that impacts USCIS’ Washington, D.C. headquarters. Career civil servants working in field offices, regional service centers, and asylum offices across the country will face serious economic hardship. Naturalization applications and oath ceremonies will grind to a halt, preventing people from registering to vote ahead of the presidential election. 

A furlough will also be felt by many Americans. One in eight native-born U.S. citizens has an immigrant parent, and if USCIS’s work stalls, American families will feel the emotional and financial toll. 

The same is true for U.S. businesses that rely on foreign-born workers to fill critical positions. These workers bring talent and innovation that help create more jobs for American workers and stimulate the U.S. economy. But without USCIS processing their paperwork, our country risks losing the ability to recruit and retain workers needed to emerge from the current economic downturn.

We need USCIS to continue its operations without interruption. While the agency has requested money from Congress, the White House has not submitted a formal funding request. The lack of a formal request so close to when furloughs begin raises the question: Does the administration want to save the agency at all and protect the jobs of 13,000-plus U.S. workers? The answer becomes even more evident as reports indicate USCIS may end the year with a surplus budget but still plans to furlough its employees.

If Congress does provide appropriations to make this possible, they must insist on guardrails to ensure that the funding shortfall is not repeated and that USCIS be held accountable. This would include implementing cost-efficient measures to adjudicate and facilitate the filing of applications and petitions, mandating that fees only be spent on fulfilling the agency’s service-oriented mission and taking steps to ensure transparency into USCIS’s fiscal management. In no way should Congress grant USCIS the blank check authority to impose an across-the-board 10 percent surcharge on all fees. That would be unfair to the customers USCIS serves and provide no accountability to a bankrupt agency. 

The story of immigration to the United States is ultimately one of human potential — the desire to work hard, support one’s family, and contribute to the future of our powerful nation. We cannot allow the government agency tasked with welcoming newcomers to be stopped in its tracks. USCIS and its thousands of employees must be enabled to continue the important work they do each and every day. With funding and accountability from Congress, this vision is possible.

Sharvari Dalal-Dheini is the director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Royce Bernstein Murray is the managing director of programs at the American Immigration Council. 


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