Immigration agency warns of furloughs amid cash crunch

USCIS says it’s facing a $1.2 billion shortfall, but lawmakers say they’re still waiting on a detailed budget breakdown from the White House.

The agency charged with administering the nation’s immigration system is facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall that it says will force thousands of furloughs in the coming weeks absent an emergency cash infusion from Congress, which could come in the next round of coronavirus relief.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the pandemic has led to a dramatic drop in fee processing, putting the agency’s finances in dire straits. But Democrats and Republicans say they’re still waiting on a detailed budget breakdown from the White House that fully outlines the problem and addresses the agency’s needs.

Meanwhile, former Obama administration officials — who have raised concerns about existing budget problems at USCIS and what they view as the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda — say Congress should tread with caution.

A senior Trump administration official contended that it has given Congress ample warning about the coming budget shortfall, including in a June 19 letterfrom acting OMB Director Russ Vought to House and Senate appropriators.

“The Administration has provided Congress with all the information they need to do their job,” said Robert Kuhlman, a former Department of Homeland Security official who’s now a spokesperson at OMB. “If Congressional Democrat appropriators have a problem with keeping the lights on at USCIS they should just say so.”

But that letter, Democratic and Republican appropriators note, didn’t even include a dollar amount.

“The Trump White House is responsible for requesting supplemental funding, but all they have sent Congress is a one-page letter that provides virtually no information on the shortfall or proposed remedies,” said House Appropriations spokesperson Evan Hollander.

“Despite this egregious lack of communication, House Democrats are closely tracking USCIS’ financial difficulties and are prepared to discuss solutions as part of negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus response legislation. So far, Senate Republicans are unwilling to begin those talks.”

A Senate GOP aide confirmed to POLITICO that Republican appropriators are still waiting for an official budget request that provides a top-line number, including a more detailed breakdown of the pandemic-related needs at USCIS.

Without intervention from Congress, the shortfall threatens to put 13,400 USCIS employees on furlough beginning August 3.

The agency said last Wednesday it will prioritize southwest border screening and fraud detection in its refugee and asylum office during the furlough, according to a copy of an email reviewed by POLITICO. The administration ramped up those procedures during his first term in an effort to discourage illegal immigration.

In response to a request for comment on its priorities during the furlough, a USCIS spokesperson told POLITICO via email that, “In the event of a furlough, all agency operations will be affected.”

A former Obama administration official and the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute say that a falling number of immigration applications, as well as the agency bringing on more personnel to detect fraud and vet applications, likely played a large role in the funding gap.

“They went on a huge staffing surge … so they ramped up their expenses at the same time revenues were going up. And then, Covid just exposed the fragile position they put themselves,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House and is now the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.

He argues that the increased vetting practices implemented as part of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda also slowed down processing and increased application denials, sapping potential revenues for the agency.

“You’ve got an agency that in the best of times was adding all this red tape, slow walking adjudications, wait times are skyrocketing, denial rates are going up …” Rand told POLITICO, “then Covid hit, and suddenly they’re claiming they’re insolvent and they might just shut down legal immigration completely for some period of time.”

The agency, which relies solely on immigration fees for funding, did shutter its field offices during the pandemic. But USCIS acknowledged it was facing a funding deficit as early as November, writing in a proposed rule that it needed to raise immigration application fees and charge a first-ever fee for asylum — and that without the hike in fees, it would face an annual shortfall of $1.2 billion.

USCIS counters that the deficit predicted in the rulemaking and the shortfall it’s seeing from the pandemic are “different scenarios.”

A spokesperson said in an emailed statement that USCIS “did not spend at the levels estimated in the proposed fee rule” and that “the precipitous decline in revenue as a result of COVID-19 began in March.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Caitlin Emma covers the federal budget and congressional spending bills on Capitol Hill for POLITICO Pro. Prior to that, she spent five years as an education policy reporter for Pro.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.

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