Originally Published in Forbes
Andy J. Semotiuk - August 13, 2020
USA Today has reported that since Congress has failed to reach a deal on a COVID-19 stimulus package, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will proceed with its furlough of about 13,400 employees, or about two-thirds of its workforce, on August 30th. The USCIS had hoped the Covid package would serve as a vehicle to approve an emergency bailout to address the agency's budget shortfall but after two weeks of negotiations on the stimulus package, talks in Congress broke down as Democrats and the White House blamed each other for the stalemate.
Earlier this month, the USCIS notified about two-thirds of its employees that they would be furloughed starting August 30th because of budget shortfalls, which the agency hoped Congress would fill in its next relief package before negotiations stalled recently. As I reported previously, a shut down of the immigration system would negatively impact: families, U.S. businesses, educational institutions, medical facilities, and churches. In addition, immigrants who are in the process of becoming naturalized U.S. citizens will not be able to complete the process in time to register to vote, DACA recipients will not be able to renew their benefits, asylum applicants will face increased delays, and businesses will be unable to hire or retain employees. In short, the full magnitude of a halt to immigration caused by budgetary problems has not yet been fully explored and could be quite shocking to America’s economy.
The USA Today article quoted an agency spokesperson that, "In the past few months, USCIS has taken action to avert a fiscal crisis, including limiting spending to salary and mission-critical activities. Without congressional intervention, USCIS will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency solvent." The USCIS is traditionally self-funded, run entirely on the fees paid by legal applicants seeking naturalization and other immigration-related services. Under the Trump administration, however, costs have risen due to new hires at the agency focused on investigating potential fraud in immigration applications.
Danielle Spooner, President of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 119, which represents workers within the USCIS, said,“This isn’t only about the 13,400 American families to be laid off during a pandemic – this is yet another thinly veiled attack on the legal immigration system by Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller.” She added, “By failing to fund this agency, the administration has managed to use the global pandemic to effectively shut down all immigration to the U.S. by the end of the month, hurting thousands of American families and businesses in the process.”
According to an analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy, immigration policies under Trump have reduced legal immigration by 49 percent. In an appeal for electoral support for immigration reform from members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Ron Klasko, a past president of the group, identified some of the main concerns regarding Trump’s immigration policies:
- Ban on issuance of H, L and J visas;
- Ban on all immigrant visas (other than certain immediate relatives and EB-5);
- Shutting down our asylum system;
- Admission of an unprecedentedly low number of refugees;
- Implementation of public charge provisions with the goal, and likely effect, of ending much of family immigration;
- Shutting down US consulates for over five months despite the fact that operations of businesses, schools and other institutions in many host countries have been fully operational for months;
- Ceasing the printing of Employment Authorization Documents and green cards;
- Implementation of a policy to separate children from parents;
- Appointing individuals, whose main qualification is that they are opposed to immigration, to leadership positions in various immigration agencies;
- Taking actions to significantly reduce foreign students in the U.S., including attempts to retroactively impose unlawful presence for technical and unknowing violations and attempts to disallow students to come to the U.S. or remain in the U.S. if their full time course of studies has become online because of the pandemic;
- Increasing processing times to unprecedented levels, despite a reduction in applications, by issuing inappropriate and burdensome Requests For Evidences, not giving deference to previous adjudications and implementing a policy of across the board interviews of cases that were not previously interviewed with the main goal of delaying the process;
- Denying applications that are approvable under existing law and previous interpretations;
- Announcing intention to issue new regulations to further restrict H-1B approvals and extensions.
The USCIS furloughs appear to be another step along these lines in the direction of halting immigration.
“I don’t think I can emphasize enough how large an issue this will be – we’re looking at the final days of legal immigration as we know it in the United States,” said Ruark Hotopp, a representative for USCIS workers in Nebraska who has spent years assisting American businesses in his role at the USCIS. “International students, scientists coming to America to study COVID-19, asylum seekers, workers recruited by American businesses, refugees – we’re talking about millions of people dealing with an immigration system running at 30 percent of the capacity it usually does. Our economy will lose billions in revenue, American businesses will lose access to the workforce they need, and hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants will be thrown into limbo.”
A bill introduced by U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (MO-5) would pay back the $1.2B Congressional infusion of funds – allocated over two years – by adding a 10% increase to fees paid by legal applicants until private funding for the USCIS stabilizes. Although discussion over funding for the USCIS, such as possibly this bill, has received some bipartisan support in Congress, Democrats have stated they want the funding contingent on reforms at the USCIS.
Not everyone agrees with reform as an immediate measure that needs to be included in Congressional funding of the agency, however. “Unless Congress acts, United States businesses who play by the rules will be devastated by these cuts,” said Nick Walsh, who represents USCIS workers in Pennsylvania. “Before we can talk about reforms, we need to keep the trains moving and keep the agency funded before time runs out – for our economy, our thousands of employees and the millions of immigrants who rely on us.”