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In mid-April, as the country faced a pandemic that had caused US Citizenship and Immigration Services to close its offices to the public, employees at the agency that issues visas and assess asylum claims began to wonder: How would they stay afloat if fewer people applied for immigration benefits and paid the fees that sustain them?
The agency response, from an internal document provided to asylum officers and obtained by BuzzFeed News, was reassuring: “USCIS does not anticipate experiencing a problem with continuing operations and paying employees in the event of reduced fee collection.”
But on Friday, Joseph Edlow, the acting head of USCIS, signaled in an email sent to staff that the coronavirus pandemic had put the agency in a financial crisis that could be disastrous: USCIS “will exhaust its funding this summer, and without congressional intervention, we risk not being able to make payroll and will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat,” he wrote. The agency was requesting $1.2 billion from Congress to keep it going after seeing a serious drop in applications and fees since March.
So far, the White House has yet to officially ask for the funding, raising questions as to whether it will back the request, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.
The agency’s place in the immigration system is integral: USCIS officers provide work permits, conduct initial asylum screenings that determine whether immigrants can make their case for protection in the US, and issue green cards and naturalizations, among other tasks.
USCIS has, however, undergone a radical transformation under the Trump administration as its officers have been forced to implement policies that have restricted asylum at the southern border and made it tougher to apply for certain visas.
Nine USCIS employees told BuzzFeed News they feared that the downturn in funding could be disastrous. They worry that their jobs will be cut and, as a result, there will be a major decline in the number of immigrants obtaining key benefits, like visas, citizenship, and asylum.
“Agency leadership blaming this on the pandemic instead of horrible mismanagement and misguided policy priorities is insulting. The goal of the administration since the start has been to reduce all immigration, not just illegal,” said one USCIS officer. “This is just furthering that goal along. Reducing legal immigration. If we can't process green cards and naturalize people, even for a short period of time, the effects will be felt for years. It’s really broad.”
Another officer said the agency already “has significant existing backlogs on nearly every benefit it adjudicates. Reduced staffing, furloughed staff means increasing delays for immigrants. Families separated for longer durations, businesses without their labor force, people held in limbo.”
“A lot of people are extremely anxious about the situation,” another asylum officer said. “I feel like the asylum division would be the first to suffer from cuts, as we know that we and our role are not wanted by this administration.”
USCIS officials said they expect applications will dip by 61% through the end of September. The agency has limited its spending to salary and “mission critical activities,” but needs the funding from Congress to continue as normal, an agency spokesperson said.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue and is seeking a one-time emergency request for funding to ensure we can carry out our mission of administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity, and protecting the American people,” a USCIS spokesperson said in a statement. “Importantly, 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.”
In November, USCIS officials pushed a proposal to increase fees for those applying for citizenship and other benefits, while also charging for asylum applications as a way to collect more funds. At the time, the agency proposal explained that the increase in fees was necessary because they projected “operating costs to exceed projected total revenue.”
“They already did this,” said Ur Jaddou, former USCIS chief counsel. “The pandemic is simply something on top of it.”
Experts like Jaddou pointed part of the blame for the lack of necessary funds to policies implemented under the Trump administration that have led to more onerous processing, like additional interviews for certain visas, allowed the government to deny permanent residency or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits.
Trump has also appointed USCIS leaders who have cut the phrase “nation of immigrants” in their mission statement and claimed the agency was not simply one that provided immigrants with benefits.
“First of all, I see USCIS as a vetting agency, not a benefits agency,” said then–USCIS leader Ken Cuccinelli.
These efforts, experts believe, have led to unnecessary use of agency resources and have prevented people from applying and hence paying the fees to keep the agency going.
“The policies with the worst impact are those that forced USCIS to spend more money for fewer case completions. Volume was up pre-COVID, but so was spending. Trump’s USCIS has spent the last three and a half years smothering legal immigrants with red tape, making its bureaucracy bigger and less efficient, and failing to raise fees on schedule,” said Doug Rand, a former Obama White House official and cofounder of Boundless Immigration. “Ideologically motivated mismanagement is the culprit; COVID-19 just made this meltdown happen sooner.”