If the immigration agency shuts down, how will we welcome aspiring Americans?

Buried beneath the headlines of coronavirus numbers and electoral politics, another storm is quickly brewing. By the end of August, the government agency singularly tasked with welcoming aspiring Americans to this country faces an unprecedented shutdown.

As former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees, civil servants with a combined 18 years of experience under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, we have seen how the agency can deliver on its mission. We know firsthand how seriously USCIS employees take their work, how they believe in our immigration system’s integrity, and how they want the agency to fulfill their mission to decide who receives immigration benefits. It would be a travesty for the agency to face widespread furloughs.

In May, USCIS officials notified Congress that they faced a massive budget shortfall and would need $1.2 billion in emergency funding to stay afloat. By early July, the agency had sent furlough notices to 13,400 employees, two-thirds of its staff nationwide. USCIS is primarily funded by the application fees paid by immigrants and their sponsors — not by federal funding — so this request is extraordinary.

The agency’s leadership has claimed that the budget shortfall results from the coronavirus and the accompanying drop in petition and application requests. While this may, in a small part, be true, the primary cause is mismanagement and inefficiencies over the past few years.

This includes an irresponsible drawdown of a significant agency surplus early in the Trump administration, the excessive hiring of additional staff to search for fraud, and unreasonably cumbersome, time-consuming layers to the decision-making process, significantly slowing processing. Ill-advised policies such as the public charge “wealth test” and duplicative requirements for in-person interviews, even when not necessary for determining eligibility, have compounded the problem.

We have already begun to see the impact of this budget shortfall.

By Sharvari Dalal-Dheini and Royce Bernstein Murray

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