A mess of USCIS’s own making

These are challenging times that are displaying long-time health and economic inequities and racial injustice. Amid the pandemic, the tremendous job losses, and the protests of murder by law enforcement, it is easy to lose track of other concerning issues that are impacting Americans, immigrants, and their families. It is important to identify three developments in immigration, specifically at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), that would significantly impact immigrants, U.S. citizens, and U.S. employers.

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First, we learned last week that a proposed rule that would significantly increase immigration application fees was sent from USCIS to the White House, moving us one step closer to the dreaded announcement of higher immigration application fees. The proposed fee increases were published in the federal register in November 2019 and more than 43,000 comments were submitted. UnidosUS opposes the immigration application fee hikes that would also eliminate certain fee waivers that are critically important to allow immigrants of limited income to apply for citizenship (among other applications). We are very concerned that in the midst of an economic crisis that has been devastating to the Latino community, these fee increases that could be announced this summer would put the ability to apply for citizenship and to unite family members out of reach for millions of people.

Second, according to news reports (BuzzFeed, CNN, CNN), USCIS is facing a budget shortfall and is requesting $1.2 billion in emergency funds from Congress. The agency director has notified employees that the budget shortfall could result in employee furloughs. According to the Associated Press, USCIS said in its letter to Congress that it would reimburse taxpayers by adding a 10% surcharge to application fees. This would be on top of already high fees that applicants pay for slower, less efficient application processing. This administration has created this fiscal mess partly by mismanaging fees, diverting resources, and making it more difficult to file applications, and as a fee-funded agency, the resulting decrease in applications filed means there is less revenue. USCIS is shooting itself in the foot because the drop in applications will continue if fees are increased. It is patently unfair that a federal agency would impose the cost of fixing the mess the agency created on future applicants who had no role USCIS’s dire financial straits.

UnidosUS signed onto a letter to Congress outlining the conditions that must be put in place if Congress were to provide additional funding to USCIS so that the agency can resume revenue streams, cut wasteful costs, and return the agency to its lawful services mission. As the letter notes, at the beginning of the Trump administration, USCIS had a surplus $800 million carryover balance, but when it published its proposed fee rule in November 2019, USCIS projected annual deficits of $1.2 billion and a negative carryover balance of $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2020.

Third, USCIS understandably suspended in person oath ceremonies for permanent residents who have completed the application process for citizenship given the pandemic. However, the agency has refused to find a way to provide a remote oath ceremony option that would allow people whose citizenship applications have already been approved to take the final step and become U.S. citizens.

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If USCIS fails to implement the option of conducting the oath ceremonies remotely, approximately 130,000 people currently waiting to be sworn in as U.S. citizens will likely miss the opportunity to register to vote in time for the November election. While USCIS is slowly reopening its offices this month and states that it is prioritizing oath ceremonies, it is falling short of finding a real solution by only administering the oath to small groups at a time when there are growing backlogs of aspiring citizens.

Below is a selection of news articles from recent days highlighting the impact that the inability to complete the citizenship process is having on people who will likely be denied the ability to vote because of the delayed ceremonies.

Wall Street Journal (6/1/20) Citizenship Delay Puts Ballots Out Of Reach

NPR (5/28/20) With Naturalizations On Hold, Potential New Voters Sit On Sidelines

Washington Post  (5/28/20) With citizenship ceremonies postponed, hundreds of thousands could miss chance to vote in November

Washington Post Editorial (5/21/20) Would-be Americans are being kept from becoming citizens — and from voting in the fall

Miami Herald (5/28/20) Thousands of immigrants were on the verge of becoming U.S. citizens. Then the pandemic struck

Associated Press (6/4/20) Citizenship Concerns Remain as Immigration Agency Reopens

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