The immigration agency admonishing immigrants to pull themselves up by their bootstraps seems to have destroyed its own boots.
For three years, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — the federal agency that processes visas, work permits and naturalizations — has lectured immigrants about how they should become more self-sufficient. It has alleged, without evidence, that too many immigrants are on the dole. (Actually, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits, and the foreign-born use fewer federal benefits than do their native-born counterparts.)
The agency implemented a broad, and likely illegal, rule allegedly designed to weed out immigrants who might ever be tempted to become a "public charge" and try to benefit from taxpayer largesse.
Well, now USCIS is broke — and is trying to become a "public charge" itself, by begging Congress for a bailout.
The agency is funded almost entirely by user fees, rather than congressional appropriations. But under President Donald Trump's leadership, it has mismanaged its finances so badly that it has sought an emergency $1.2 billion infusion from taxpayers.
Unless it gets a bailout, the agency will furlough three-quarters of its workforce next month, Government Executive reported Thursday.
The agency claims it's a novel coronavirus victim. No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted operations. But USCIS was in financial trouble long before the virus's outbreak.
It acknowledged as much in public documents last fall, when it proposed a massive increase in user fees because of large projected budget deficits.
It didn't have to be this way. When Trump took office, USCIS inherited a budget surplus. Last year, the agency saw record highs in both revenue and revenue per user.
So what went wrong?
The administration has frittered away funds on phantom cases of immigration fraud — which, like the president's allegations of voter fraud, it has struggled to prove is an actual widespread problem that's been going undetected.
USCIS has siphoned resources to create a denaturalization task force, which strips citizenship from immigrants found to have lied or otherwise cheated on applications. Last year,the agency revealed intentions to double the size of its fraud detection unit.
The bigger drain on resources, though, is its deliberate creation of more busy work for immigrants and their lawyers — as well as thousands of USCIS employees. These changes are designed to make it harder for people to apply for, receive or retain lawful immigration status.
For instance, the agency has demanded more unnecessary documentation ("requests for evidence") and more duplicative, mandatory in-person interviews. Previously, staffers had more discretion to determine whether these interviews were necessary.
Staffers have been directed to comb through applications looking for minor (frivolous) reasons to reject otherwise eligible applicants.
For example, USCIS now rejects submissions as "incomplete" if the entry field for an applicant's middle name is blank, even if it's left blank because the applicant doesn't have a middle name. Sometimes, they'll reject a form if the nonapplicable field says "NA" rather than specifically "N/A." In recent weeks, lawyers have told me they've received rejections because the name on the back of an attached photo was printed in ink, rather than pencil. And so on.
These and similar policies have contributed to application backlogs, with processing delays reaching crisis levels.
Such policies necessitate spending many more hours — and resources — processing every application. The additional costs now required to process just five of the agency's most common forms is more than $500 million per year, according to a forthcoming analysis of USCIS documents from immigration experts Doug Rand and Lindsay Milliken.
So the agency is approaching Congress, hat in hand, for a bailout — and permission to gouge immigrants for even more money while continuing to deny these same immigrants due process. Congress should not reward this bad behavior. Nor should it let immigrants, or thousands of civil servants, be punished for the agency's financial mismanagement.
Instead, in exchange for any bailout, lawmakers should demand more transparency, deadline extensions for immigrants affected by the pandemic, and specific policy changes.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council offer a few obvious suggestions, including eliminating some of the stupid processing requirements that raise costs for both applicants and USCIS without actually adding value. Other ways to reduce costs include holding virtual naturalization oath ceremonies and allowing electronic payments for everything.
Congress could also demand the agency raise more money on its own, without gouging, say, poor asylum seekers. For instance, it could expand the cash cow known as "premium processing" (faster processing, for a fee) to more types of its applications.
Finally, get rid of the "public charge" rule. It's a perfect example of everything that got USCIS into this mess: an expensive-to-administer — and, again, likely illegal — solution in search of a problem, whose only purpose is to punish immigrants just trying to follow the law.
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