LOS ANGELES — A precipitous drop in applications for green cards, citizenship and other programs has threatened the solvency of the federal agency that administers the country’s lawful immigration system, prompting it to seek a $1.2 billion cash infusion from Congress as well as fee hikes to stay afloat.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which relies on the fees that it charges applicants to fund its operations, said that it could run out of money by the summer because the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in far fewer people applying for visas and other benefits.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue,” said a spokesman for the agency, noting that its receipts could plummet by more than 60% by the close of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Without the $1.2 billion injection from Congress, the agency, he said, would be unable to fund its operations in a matter of months. The agency plans to impose a 10% “surcharge” on applications, on top of previously proposed increases, that it is expecting to implement in the coming months.
Critics blamed the Trump administration’s stringent policies — which have caused backlogs, red tape and application denials to skyrocket — for dissuading an untold number of people from applying for visas and other immigration benefits.
“This administration is asking taxpayers to bail out an agency as a result of the very policies it put in place which have caused revenue loss,” said Melissa Rodgers, director of programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.
“With extreme vetting, they are making every single application take longer to review, and processing fewer,” said Rodgers, who oversees a program to promote citizenship among legal immigrants. “Word gets out that it’s not worth applying.”
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, an immigration hard-liner who is acting deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and at the helm of the agency, has stressed upholding immigration laws over granting visas and citizenship as the agency’s mission. “We are not a benefit agency, we are a vetting agency,” he has said.
Last summer, Cuccinelli announced a “public charge” rule that denied immigrants green cards if they were deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps and subsidized housing, a move that is believed to have deterred many people from applying. The reason: Applying for legal permanent residency in itself could be considered a negative factor by immigration officers when determining whether a person could become a public charge.
Some critics said that the agency was ill-prepared for the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic because of policies that had rendered its adjudication process less efficient while bloating its payroll.
Since President Donald Trump took office, the agency, for example, has bolstered resources devoted to fraud detection as well as added new requirements for in-person interviews for hundreds of thousands of employment- and marriage-based green card applicants. It also has been returning large numbers of visa applications with “requests for further evidence” of eligibility, which adjudicators must then review again. Extensions for H-1B visas, issued to skilled workers already in the United States, are now reviewed from scratch, as if the person is a first-time applicant.
“This administration has made every single application much more expensive and time-consuming to adjudicate,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama administration.
In fiscal year 2016, the agency had 15,828 positions, including full-time and contract workers. Three years later, that number had climbed to almost 18,866, a 19% increase.
“If they had kept the same staff levels and not put in place these policies, would they still have run out of cash? Maybe not,” said Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps people apply for green cards and citizenship.
As in previous years, Citizenship and Immigration Services in fiscal 2020 had counted on fees paid by applicants to cover the lion’s share of its expenditures: 97% of its $4.8 billion budget.
But after applications took a nosedive, the agency, the spokesman said, was 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.”
The agency already had been trying to limit spending to paying salaries and critical expenses to avert a financial crisis, he said, and would have to take further “drastic actions,” which he did not specify, to keep operating. Those could include staff reductions that would affect the adjudication of citizenship, green cards, asylum and work visas.
The agency has not released data that attests to the decrease in applications. But an officer at the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk to the news media, said that the staff had been notified recently that the agency was “severely strapped for cash due to the low number of new applications being filed,” adding that overtime, travel and purchases had been scrapped.
Ana Maria Schwartz, an immigration lawyer in Houston, said that half as many clients had retained her to apply for green cards, citizenship and other immigration benefits between March 15 and May 15 compared with the same period in 2019. “That’s a seismic shift, even for my tiny firm,” she said.
In November last year, the agency’s leadership proposed steep increases in fees to file for legal immigration and naturalization. For the first time, the agency would also charge those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in the United States.
Cuccinelli, the agency’s chief, said that the fee hikes would help cover the agency’s deficits.
Immigrant advocates balked at the justification, saying that the goal was to reduce the number of immigrants who become citizens before the 2020 presidential election and, more broadly, cut legal immigration by making fees prohibitive for low-income people.
The fee assessed on petitions for naturalization would jump more than 60%, to $1,170 from $725, for most applicants. The government would also begin charging asylum-seekers $50 for applications and $490 for work permits, which would make the United States one of just four countries to charge people for asylum.
The government also announced its intention to increase the cost of renewals for hundreds of thousands of participants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. They would be required to pay $765, rather than $495.
Thus far, the fees have remained unchanged. The government has issued three public notices about them in the Federal Register, attracting more than 40,000 public comments that it is mandated to review and consider before announcing a final rule.
“The administration turned the fee changes into a hyperideological policy vehicle that slowed them down,” Rand said.
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