An official at the agency that oversees US immigration and naturalization services told employees not to communicate with President-elect Joe Biden's transition team until a Trump appointee “deems the results ‘clear’” and recognizes the winner, according to an internal email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The message was sent Thursday to a group of policy staffers at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) nearly a week after the presidential election was called in favor of Biden.
USCIS has undergone a stark transformation under the Trump administration. The agency has shifted its focus from ways to more efficiently screen and provide immigration benefits to enacting policies to restrict immigrants at the border and elsewhere from gaining access to the US.
“It’s disturbing and disheartening that the agency is not permitting staff to aid the Biden transition team to ensure a smooth transfer,” said one USCIS employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These delays could hamper the new administration’s ability to hit the ground running on important issues facing the agency and our country.”
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The Biden administration signaled its focus on USCIS in its selection of Ur Jaddou, a former lead USCIS official, to head the team responsible for reviewing the Department of Homeland Security as part of the transition.
But before Jaddou and others can gain access, Emily Murphy, a Trump-appointed administrator of the General Services Administration, must write a letter of “ascertainment” determining the likely winner of the election. That has yet to happen as President Donald Trump continues to dispute the election results; USCIS officials were reminded of that fact in the email.
“I am providing the information below to clarify where things stand regarding a potential transition of administration,” wrote a USCIS official who is on the team that plans for presidential transitions.
The official added, “The GSA Administrator has not yet announced ascertainment of an apparent winner of the presidential election. She will not do so until she deems the results ‘clear.’ Until then, we all remain in a pre-election posture which [means] that there should not be any communication with the team.”
The email informed staffers that “until ascertainment, there is to be no contact with the Biden team,” before adding that “if and when” the GSA recognition of Biden’s victory is formalized, contact will be made.
The official noted that the transition process begins when agencies receive notification of ascertainment.
But the transition delay has caused concern among officials in other agencies, especially those responsible for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
For USCIS — and DHS as a whole — the delay could hamper efforts to undo the myriad changes to immigration policy instituted by the Trump administration. At USCIS, immigration and asylum officers have been forced to implement policies that have restricted asylum at the southern border and made it tougher to apply for certain visas.
In July, USCIS officials said they planned to increase fees for those applying for citizenship and other benefits, while also charging for asylum applications, as a way to collect more funds before they were blocked by a federal court. The administration has also pushed through a policy that allows the government to deny permanent residency or restrict certain visas to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits.
USCIS has also faced serious economic problems. In August, agency officials canceled a planned furlough of more than 13,000 employees, which was set to bring the immigration system to a halt.
USCIS officials have warned since spring that the agency, which is mostly funded by fees, was running out of money due to a decline in applications during the pandemic and needed an influx of $1.2 billion from Congress.