Our Immigration System Is About to Stall

Congress needs to restore financial solvency to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service

Photo Credit: Jason Redmond/AFP

Don’t let anyone tell you differently: immigrants are an important part of a vibrant economy. This truth is likely to become more obvious if the pandemic continues to make it difficult to bring in the workers we need. Unfortunately, no one quite knows how long this sad state of affairs will persist. What we do know, however, is that there are already millions of immigrants and temporary, nonimmigrant workers in the country legally, and that it is essential that their work visas and other immigration documents be verified or renewed to create as little disruption as possible.

We are both immigrants. One of us (Veronique) became an American citizen several years ago. The other (Jack) is working at the Mercatus Center under an H-1B visa that will need to be renewed soon. Unfortunately, an odd dynamic—the lack of revenue at a small government agency paired with the current administration’s unfavorable view of immigration—is threatening the ability of workers and their employers to get visas approved or renewed. Some are academics like us. Some are laborers, business owners, or tech innovators. The list goes on.

But this argument isn’t really about us. It’s about having a government that does what it’s supposed to do. The problem is fairly simple:

Unlike most government agencies, U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is a fee-for-service agency. This means that it operates based on the revenues it collects through petitions for work visas, tourist visas, and citizenship applications. It should be self-sustaining, more or less.

But this funding scheme has been complicated by the fact that many types of visas have become harder to get during the Trump years. The number of nonimmigrant visas (those issued for tourism, business, medical treatment, and certain types of temporary work) has declined by 20 percent since 2015. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought global travel to a near halt since March, completely stalling the need for tourist visas.

Estimates show a 61 percent decline in application and petition requests, which has created a significant funding gap for the agency this fiscal year. As a result, USCIS will be forced to furlough 13,400 workers (or about 70 percent of its workforce) starting in August unless the agency can find more much-needed funding.

USCIS claims that the budget shortfall is the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s partly true. But projections already showed large budget deficits long before the pandemic hit. Along with declines in the amount of revenue-generating visas issued, the agency has significantly expanded its workforce by around 3,000 additional staff since 2016.

Much of the increased staffing and spending is the result of the administration’s ideological mandate to combat immigration-fraud efforts. In fact, last year USCIS revealed its intentions to more than double the number of fraud detecton and national security employees.

The current administration has issued several other policies that reduce immigration processing efficiency and require more staff. These include requiring interviews for people seeking employment-based green cards, for family members of refugees and asylum seekers, and for recently married couples. In addition, the agency eliminated the deference policy for visa renewals, meaning it treats every visa extension as an entirely new petition, even when the applications involve the same parties and facts present in the initial petition. These unnecessary reevaluations add time to the approval process and worsen the existing backlog.

These strict, politically motivated policies require spending more resources and more hours on each visa application. According to a newly released analysis by immigration experts Doug Rand and Lindsay Milliken , these additional costs now equate to more than $500 million per year for just five of the agencies most common immigration forms.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Many of the services that USCIS provides benefit American citizens, especially those petitioning for family members or adopting a child. American businesses attempting to verify the legal status of their employees will face open-ended processing times–with many of those workers already in the U.S. seeking visa renewal. The job-creating boost that skilled foreign workers provide, along with the much-needed services of foreign-born doctors and nurses, will be withheld or delayed.

The agency has already taken steps to tighten its belt by implementing a hiring freeze, limiting salary increases, and reducing other expenses. But even with these cost-saving measures, it will only be able to operate at 25 percent its staffing capacity after August 3, and will have to inform the remainder of its workforce of the impending furloughs by July 2.

In order to continue its operations, USCIS has requested $1.2 billion from Congress in deficit-neutral emergency supplemental funding over a two-year period. The agency will ensure that the funds will be paid back to the U.S. Treasury by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on visa application fees.

USCIS says that this proposed funding plan will “ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people” and that “this funding proposal protects American taxpayers by not adding to the deficit and requiring USCIS to pay the money back to the U.S. Treasury.”

The agency submitted the emergency budget request to Congress in May, but the House Appropriations Committee has not yet moved toward granting the funds for the agency, as the president has not submitted a formal request to do so.

In a perfect world, the government would not have put itself in this position. Under the current circumstances, though, the system requires more than just funding: it needs reform. The American Immigration Lawyers Association and American Immigration Council have outlined a sensible set of requests to ensure that USCIS is transparent, efficient, and fiscally responsible moving forward. To achieve this goal, USCIS should:

  • Reinstitute the policy of giving deference to prior determinations of eligibility, which can help expedite the process of visa renewals. Adjudicators will still have discretion over requirements for in-person interviews, and previously captured biometrics can be re-used for all visa types.
  • Refocus on the adjudicatory mission (i.e. processing and adjudicating immigration applications) that the agency was given to upon its creation as part of the Department of Homeland Security and refrain from primarily acting as a vetting agency. USCIS is not primarily a vetting agency. It was formed to adjudicate immigration benefits and must prioritize its resources for that purpose, rather than strictly immigration enforcement.
  • Refrain from transferring USCIS funds to other federal agencies, particularly in light of its own financial shortfalls.
  • Review the recent increases in Requests For Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny and take steps to issue them more judiciously in the future to spare agency resources.
  • Expand its premium processing service to allow all applicants to pay a premium price for a faster turnaround of their applications, which would also allow for a substantial increase in agency revenues.
  • Allow modern technology to vastly improve the efficiency of application and petition processes by permitting digital signatures and electronic payment systems.

Because of conscious decisions made by leaders in Washington, our immigration system is already forcing the world’s best and brightest to take their skills elsewhere. Visa processing times are significantly longer than in other preferred immigrant nations, such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, with some green card applicants waiting multiple years for issuance. To put it another way, would-be immigrants face a choice between applying to more welcoming nations with shorter wait times and the United States, which offers longer waits and less certainty of success. It’s a dilemma many are already facing right now.

Failing to grant emergency funds to USCIS will cause serious damage to the U.S. workforce, resulting in declining morale and an eventual brain drain. We must ensure that our immigration processing system operates smoothly and efficiently, so that the United States can continue to be the preferred destination for all those workers who want a shot at the American dream.

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