As the US agency that processes applications for legal immigration struggles with a backlog, its leaders asked staffers to volunteer to help ICE on administrative tasks, including with a program keeping asylum-seekers in Mexico.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency tasked with deciding applications for citizenship, green cards, work visas, and asylum, has undergone a noticeable shift under the Trump administration. In recent weeks, observers have noted that the agency’s new acting director, Ken Cuccinelli, has spoken more about Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations than the work his own agency does — particularly processing immigration benefits.
The email to staffers, sent Wednesday by USCIS deputy Mark Koumans and obtained by BuzzFeed News, asked employees to volunteer for administrative work in ICE field offices across the country, including processing files that are part of a program forcing immigrants seeking asylum to remain in Mexico as their cases are adjudicated, and supporting public document requests.
“Current conditions are placing extreme stress on our colleagues at Immigration and Customs Enforcement ... USCIS has agreed to seek USCIS volunteers to provide ICE with support,” Koumans said in his message. “I appreciate your willingness to consider helping our colleagues fulfill the DHS mission.”
The message comes as USCIS deals with crushing backlogs of immigration benefits cases — average case processing times have jumped 46% from the 2016 fiscal year to the 2018 fiscal year, and the average processing time has gone up from just over six months to more than nine months in that same time period, according to data compiled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The backlog is under examination by the US Government Accountability Office, and Tuesday, it was the subject of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
“Over the past few years, we have seen significant increases in processing delays and case backlogs at USCIS. The backlog of citizenship applications nearly doubled from 367,000 in late 2015 to about 740,000 in September 2018. In my district, most applicants for citizenship now must wait at least a year for their application to be processed, and sometimes even 2 years,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
USCIS officials have countered that though they have been swamped with benefit requests, they have still processed record numbers of citizenship oaths and applications. Officials said that law enforcement agency ICE needed their help urgently.
“There is a national emergency at our Southern border. Because Congress refuses to provide the targeted changes needed to close the loopholes in our immigration laws, USCIS continues to partner with the Department of Homeland Security and our sister agencies to mitigate the crisis,” said Jessica Collins, a spokesperson for USCIS. “Congress could end this crisis by providing lasting change through statutory fixes. Until then, abuses of our immigration laws will encourage child exploitation and human trafficking, put a strain on finite government resources, and continue to undermine the integrity of our immigration system.”
One USCIS officer, however, told BuzzFeed News that Cuccinelli appeared focused on helping ICE with its law enforcement work, rather than adjudicating immigration benefits. The officer requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
“I am sure [ICE] needs people to help process paperwork and keep track of people. Of course, if they stopped detaining them, separating families, and sending people back to Mexico, you wouldn’t need help,” said the officer.
In the run-up to election years, agency staffers have typically focused on processing citizenship applications, the officer said. The officer, who added there was a large gap between the acting leadership and career officials within the agency, wondered if the move was intentional to dissuade from that effort.
“I can’t tell if the tactic is intentional or not. It would imply that the leadership understood that naturalization is the focus now...but between this and the census debacle, it seems they know what is at stake,” the officer said. “Cuccinelli is diverting resources towards enforcement.”
Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy during the Obama administration as assistant director for entrepreneurship, said the request for volunteers to move to supporting ICE was a mistake.
“Civil servants at USCIS signed up for duties like helping US citizens sponsor close family members for green cards, not working for ICE,” he said. “Congress never authorized this transfer of resources. By the administration’s logic, what’s next — pulling FEMA and Coast Guard officials away from their lawful roles?”