The federal government agency that handles United States asylum requests, processes visa applications and grants citizenship is preparing to furlough most of its employees while would-be citizens remain stuck waiting to get naturalized ahead of the November election.
Originally planned for the beginning of August, the furloughs were bumped back to the end of the month after Democrats and independent immigration experts questioned whether such action was necessary amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think it would be an extraordinary travesty to basically kick to the curb all of these civil servants and basically withhold their salaries in the middle of an economic crisis," said Doug Rand, a former White House policy advisor during the Obama administration, who now specializes in immigration legal services. "Not to mention bringing the immigration system to a grinding halt when there's absolutely no need to do so."
Joseph Edlow, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' deputy director, told lawmakers at the end of July that the agency was able to catch up on its backlog of 100,000 pending naturalization ceremonies delayed by the pandemic. However, the average number of monthly naturalizations still trails far below prior years by tens of thousands, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.
"All USCIS operations, including naturalization ceremonies, will be impacted by a furlough," spokesperson Joe Sowers said in a statement. "At this time, we do not have the number of naturalization ceremonies that will be impacted. In the event of a furlough, we will continue to conduct naturalization ceremonies, but we anticipate it will be on a more limited basis."
An analysis from the Migration Policy Institute found budget problems at USCIS -- which is almost entirely funded by the immigration application fees it collects -- were apparent well before the pandemic and likely the result of President Donald Trump's push for "extreme vetting" of applicants.
As USCIS reduced its year-over-year surplus goals, the agency's carry-over balance dropped into negative territory in 2019, according to data compiled by MPI.
The citizenship agency is now asking for $1.2 billion from Congress, which was expected to be addressed in an additional coronavirus relief package before negotiations between Democrats and the White House stalled out. The request accounts for about a quarter of the agency's $4.8 billion operating budget for 2020.
"Based on the latest estimates of surplus funding that will carry over into fiscal year 2021, I believe that the agency can and should delay their furlough of 13,000 dedicated public servants until September 30, 2020," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who serves as the vice chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
A group of Democrats wrote to Senate leadership last month asking for the funding to be provided on the condition of increased transparency and assurance that the money would not be used for immigration enforcement or anti-fraud measures that replicate the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a move that would have immigrants footing the bill, USCIS also plans to increase the cost of the naturalization application by more than 80%, according to the finalized version of the fee structure first proposed last year. The plan includes eliminating an $85 service fee for some applicants.
Starting in October, the U.S. will also become part of just a handful of countries -- including Iran, Australia and Fiji -- to charge for asylum with the addition of a $50 application fee. The fee that immigrants, including asylum seekers, pay for work permits will also increase by 34%.
Citizenship agency faces delays, potential staff cuts ahead of election