Originally Published in The Washington Post
Editorial Board - August 18, 2020
Ms. Wang’s interaction with USCIS, this country’s main immigration agency, is ongoing — her current visa expires next summer — and in many ways it has been better than most. USCIS has become notorious not only for what immigration lawyers say is slapdash ineptitude but also as a weapon in the Trump administration’s arsenal of anti-immigration rules, policies and bureaucratic ploys. It has turned away applicants for leaving fields on forms blank rather than writing “N/A”; needlessly delayed naturalization ceremonies for tens of thousands of immigrants on the verge of citizenship; and, making a mockery of the Statue of Liberty, denied green cards to migrants based on a wealth test. Lately, it has established a denaturalization task force, whose mission is to strip citizenship from immigrants who may have cut corners.
Those initiatives, among others, deterred droves of immigrants from filing applications in the first three years of the Trump administration, and the pandemic further depressed the agency’s caseload as it shut down offices. Given that 97 percent of USCIS’s revenue comes from applicant fees, the effect was to bankrupt the agency.
It has asked Congress for a $1.2 billion bailout to close a massive deficit; failing that, it has warned that two-thirds of its 20,000 employees will be furloughed starting at the end of this month.
Even before the pandemic dealt it a knockout blow, USCIS, which hired thousands of new employees to intensify the scrutiny of applicants even as its caseload dipped, was proposing more than two dozen fee increases to cover its deficit. Effective in October, the price demanded of new citizens will increase by more than 80 percent, to $1,160. Even applicants for asylum, seeking refuge in this country from conditions that are often appalling, will be hit for the first time with a fee, of $50. That makes the United States one of just four countries in the world to extract a price from asylum seekers; the others are Australia, Iran and Fiji.
USCIS, as an instrument of President Trump’s nativist, xenophobic worldview, has been fundamentally transformed. For decades under Republican and Democratic presidents, it performed the valuable work of maintaining safeguards while helping guide the ambitions, energy and pluck of millions of strivers around the world who, dreaming of a better life, were equipped to enrich the United States economically and culturally. Under the Trump administration, the agency has become first and foremost a barrier to those same strivers. This country is poorer for it.