LOS ANGELES – A dizzying drop in orders for green cards, citizenship and other programs has threatened the solvency of the federal agency that administers the country's legal immigration system, prompting it to seek an infusion of $ 1.2 billion in cash in Congress , as well as rate increases to stay afloat.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which are based on fees charged by applicants to fund their operations, said they could run out of money in the summer because the coronavirus pandemic resulted in far fewer people applying for visas and other benefits.
"Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States has had a dramatic drop in revenue," said an agency spokesman, noting that its receipts could plummet more than 60% by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September.
Without Congress' injection of $ 1.2 billion, the agency would be unable to finance its operations in a matter of months. The agency plans to impose a 10% “surcharge” on applications, in addition to the previously proposed increases, which it hopes to implement in the coming months.
Critics blamed the Trump administration's strict policies, which have caused gunfire, bureaucracy and app denial, for deterring countless people from applying for visas and other immigration benefits.
"This government is asking taxpayers to bail out an agency as a result of the policies implemented that have caused revenue loss," said Melissa Rodgers, program director at the Center for Legal Resources for Immigrants in San Francisco.
"With extreme scans, they are making each application take longer to review and process less," said Rodgers, who oversees a program to promote citizenship among legal immigrants. "It is said that it is not worth applying."
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, an immigration hardliner who is acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and in charge of the agency, emphasized defending immigration laws on granting visas and citizenship as the agency's mission. "We are not a benefits agency, we are a verification agency," he said.
Last summer, Cuccinelli announced a "public charge" rule that denied green cards to immigrants if they were considered likely to use government benefit programs, such as food stamps and subsidized housing, an action that is believed to prevent many people to apply. The reason: applying for legal permanent residence alone can be considered a negative factor by immigration agents when determining whether a person can become a public prosecution.
Some critics said the agency was ill-prepared for the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic because of policies that have made its award process less efficient and inflated its payroll.
Since President Trump took office, the agency, for example, has stepped up resources dedicated to fraud detection, as well as adding new requirements for personal interviews for hundreds of thousands of green card applicants based on employment and marriage.
A large number of visa applications are also returning with “additional proof requests” for eligibility, which contractors must review again. H-1B visa extensions, granted to skilled workers already in the United States, are now revised from scratch, as if the person were the first time applying.
"This administration has made each request much more expensive and time-consuming to judge," said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama administration.
In fiscal 2016, the agency had 15,828 vacancies, including full-time and contract workers. Three years later, that number had risen to almost 18,866, an increase of 19%.
"If they kept the same level of staff and didn't implement these policies, they would still have money without money – maybe not," said Rand, 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 the fees paid by applicants to cover most of their expenses: 97% of the $ 4.8 billion budget.
But after the requests fell, the agency, the spokesman said, was seeking “a single emergency request for funding to ensure that we can fulfill our mission to administer our country's legal immigration system, while safeguarding its integrity and protecting the American people. "
The agency was already trying to limit spending to the payment of wages and critical expenses to avoid a financial crisis, he said, and would have to take other "drastic actions", which he did not specify, to continue operating. This could include reductions in personnel that would affect the award of citizenship, green cards, asylum and work visas.
The agency did not release data that attest to the decline in applications. But an agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, because the person was not authorized to speak to the media, said the team was recently notified that the agency was “in dire need of money due to the low number of new orders. being archived ”, adding that overtime, travel and shopping have been ruled out.
Ana Maria Schwartz, immigration lawyer in Houston, said that half of her clients hired her to apply for green cards, citizenship and other immigration benefits between March 15 and May 15 compared to the same period in 2019. “This is a change seismic, even for my small business – she said.
In November last year, the agency's leadership proposed sharp increases in rates to require legal immigration and naturalization. For the first time, the agency would also charge those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in the United States.
Cuccinelli, head of the agency, said that raising rates would help cover the agency's deficits.
Defenders of immigrants declined the justification, saying the goal was to reduce the number of immigrants who become citizens before the 2020 presidential elections and, more broadly, to reduce legal immigration, making rates prohibitive for low-income people.
The fee charged on naturalization petitions would jump more than 60%, to $ 1,170, to $ 1,170, for most applicants. The government would also start charging $ 50 for asylum applications and $ 490 for work permits, making the United States one of four countries to charge people for asylum.
The government also announced its intention to increase the cost of renovations to hundreds of thousands of participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. They would be required to pay $ 765, instead of $ 495.
So far, rates have remained unchanged. The government issued three public notices about them in the Federal Register, attracting more than 40,000 public comments that they are required to review and consider before announcing a final rule.
"The government has turned rate changes into a vehicle for hyper-ideological policy that has slowed them down," said Rand.