By Nithya Nathan‑Pineau, Policy Attorney & Strategist at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was created to adjudicate humanitarian, employment, and family-based immigration applications. According to recent reports, without a $1.2 billion infusion of cash from Congress, USCIS will face a budget shortfall and will need to furlough 70% of the employees starting August. 3rd. Furlough notices have already been issued. Such drastic reductions in staff will bring the vital work of the agency to a grinding halt. This is a critical moment for Congress to ensure the Trump administration is held accountable for the steps they have taken to manipulate and dismantle the agency, turn it into another law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and run down the budget surplus that existed at the end of the Obama administration.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has taken steps to intentionally diminish the vital work of USCIS by making it harder for immigrants to apply for and receive a visa or other immigration benefit. This administration has implemented policy memos that increased rejections, long processing times, denials, and requests for evidence. As a result, more immigrants are in limbo, without status, or in deportation proceedings.
Taken together, these policies have made immigrants more hesitant to apply for benefits, and as a result USCIS has reported fewer application receipts. This is problematic because USCIS is primarily funded through fees that accompany applications. USCIS has claimed their funding challenges stem from the pandemic but the overwhelming evidence indicate that they have gone bankrupt as a result of waste, mismanagement of funds and an Administration that prioritizes enforcement and criminalization over immigration application processing. These efforts fit squarely within the Donald Trump and Stephen Miller agenda, undergirded in racism and xenophobia.
The Trump administration has manipulated funding and staffing towards programs designed to change the agency’s primary purpose and to turn it into an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For example, USCIS has devoted resources to a new tip line designed to receive information about fraud and they have reallocated staff to focus on denaturalization. The increased allocation of resources towards these programs has meant that fewer applications are being adjudicated and people are waiting much longer to receive decisions on their applications for humanitarian benefits like visas for survivors of human trafficking, as well as permanent residence and citizenship.
In addition to the reallocation of resources, the memo that USCIS issued to refer applicants for deportation has been a deterrent. Under this administration, the number of approvals for applications for permanent residence and many other immigration visas have dropped. Many people have simply decided not to apply for benefits they are eligible for because they are afraid the simple act of applying might end with them being ripped away from their families and communities and deported.
Each step the administration takes against USCIS creates an additional obstacle for the immigrants’ rights movement. Take for example, the recent positive Supreme Court decision on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowing young immigrants without status to receive employment authorization and a reprieve from deportation. The decision allowing the program to continue came down three weeks ago, and still USCIS has failed to issue any statement or guidance on how DACA applications and renewals will be processed. The only step they have taken was the issuance of deeply politicized statement reiterating the administration’s views on DACA . In fact, USCIS has rejected some initial filings instead of processing applications. This leaves hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and their family members in limbo along with the USCIS employees waiting anxiously to see if Congress will fund the agency. USCIS’ work must continue with important guardrails holding the administration accountable for their role in creating this fiscal crisis.
It’s time for the Trump administration to learn from our movement wins that though our communities are suffering from the effects of the global pandemic and systemic racism, we are standing on the right side of history. Our fight will not end until USCIS begins processing DACA applications and protects the confidentiality of each applicant.