Merkley, Colleagues Push Back on Trump Administration’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda in USCIS Funding Debate

Merkley, Colleagues Push Back on Trump Administration’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda in USCIS Funding Debate

Senators push for guardrails to be attached to immigration agency’s bailout funding

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley—along with 14 of his Senate colleagues—is pushing back on the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda in advance of upcoming debate on a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) bailout. Merkley and his colleagues are pushing for any funding package to include guardrails that will ensure USCIS cannot target asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants with unaffordable fees, ensure that the money is not used for deportations or other immigration enforcement activities, and require measures to otherwise increase transparency and fiscal responsibility from the agency.

Merkley was joined by U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).

In a letter today to Senate leaders—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees—the Senators insisted that if Congress grants USCIS’s request for a $1.2 billion emergency bailout, the funding include safeguards that ensure it is not used to further the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.

The Senators wrote, as 13,000 USCIS employees face possible furloughs, “We must act now to protect USCIS public servants, who have already begun to receive furlough notices, and are facing the reality of unemployment in a time of economic insecurity caused by the global pandemic. It is important for their livelihood, but also for the livelihood of the communities they serve.”

While the Senators noted that there is a very real and critical need for the funding USCIS has requested, they also noted that “there are disturbing reports that much of the current financial crisis of the organization is not solely based on the coronavirus crisis but on mismanagement and dangerous policy choices, including wasted resources on unnecessary interviews, reallocation of resources to train unqualified Customs and Border Protection officers on asylum cases, burdensome requests for evidence, and attempts to divert resources to enforcement efforts instead of its mission to process immigration benefits. Under the Trump administration, there are allegations that USCIS has become solely a ‘vetting agency,’ instead of an immigration benefits agency, which has resulted in a culture of creating barriers to the immigration process that has been fostered at the agency.”

“For these very reasons, we must both fund USCIS but also put sideboards on the funding we provide to ensure that we are never again put in the unenviable position of rescuing an agency that we intentionally crafted to be primarily fee-funded,” the Senators continued.

Specifically, the Senators urged Senate leaders to include the following guardrails:

  • Require USCIS to implement measures that generate new revenue (such as by expanding premium processing) without new or increased fees on under resourced families or asylum seekers and facilitate increased filing of applications and petitions.
  • Ensure the availability of fee waivers. Via proposed rule, USCIS has proposed to eliminate fee waivers for low-income applicants, which includes green card holders applying for citizenship.
  • Prohibit USCIS, an immigration benefits agency, from transferring funding to enforcement agencies, or from using Congress’ funding within USCIS on redundant anti-fraud programs, such as the tip form for reporting suspected fraud, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement already manages, so as to ensure that USCIS remains focused on its service-oriented mission.
  • Require USCIS to adopt measures to increase transparency, fiscal responsibility and efficiency, such as prohibiting USCIS from using funds to require in-person interviews when not necessary or denying cases without first issuing requests for evidence or notices of intent to deny or revoke to provide an opportunity to cure any deficiencies.  Additionally, require USCIS to first take measures to reverse recent policy choices and practices that have been cost-inefficient.
  • Require USCIS to provide remote naturalization ceremonies to accommodate people who have been on a lengthy legal pathway to U.S. Citizenship during the coronavirus crisis.

The Senators’ letter is endorsed by FWD.us, United We Dream (UWD), International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), American Immigration Council (AIC), Church World Service (CWS), The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

“We have seen the Trump administration try to slash legal immigration through congressional mandate—and fail,” said Todd Schulte, President of FWD.us. “They’ve tried to use the pretext of a global pandemic. And now, they’re putting America’s entire immigration system into crisis by refusing to fund USCIS. This must be reversed immediately, and we thank the Senators for their work to do this.”

“Unless U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives emergency funding, thousands of civil servants will soon be out of a job and the immigration system will come to a grinding halt, hurting American families and businesses at a critical time of recovery for the nation,” said Ben Johnson, AILA’s Executive Director. “To be clear, the agency itself is to blame for its bankrupt state. The current administration's policies run counter to the agency's statutorily-defined mission to adjudicate immigration cases fairly and efficiently. Congress must impose stringent accountability and policy reforms to ensure USCIS operates in a fiscally responsible manner and does not come crawling back in short order seeking another bail-out.”  

“Families of color, including immigrant families, have been disproportionately devastated by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Olivia Golden, Executive Director at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “Inadequate relief funding and harmful immigration policies have only exacerbated the negative health and financial outcomes for immigrants and their families. Amid USCIS funding shortages, CLASP supports Sen. Merkley's efforts to provide emergency funding, promote continued USCIS operations and establish guidelines to ensure additional funding is not used to promote bias within the immigration system, or advance harmful policies such as public charge.”

The full text of the letter can be found here and also follows below.

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Dear Colleagues,

We recently became aware[1] that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the fee-based component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that administers lawful immigration to the United States, needs emergency funds in the amount of $1.2 billion dollars in order to fully continue its operations. We are disappointed that the Trump administration has not formally requested funding to resolve the financial problems USCIS faces. The fiscal mismanagement of the agency will result in thousands of USCIS employees being furloughed and potentially losing their jobs, and severely limit the United States’ ability to process our legal immigration system. We should provide emergency funding, but it is equally critical that we establish firm parameters and sideboards to ensure the funds are used appropriately, not used to intimidate or discourage immigration, and to encourage the agency to develop procedures that will prevent a funding shortfall in the future.

Although USCIS has been facing financial woes[2] for over a year now[3], it only recently approached Congress in May[4] with an informal notice of severe financial issues. However, there are disturbing reports that much of the current financial crisis of the organization is not solely based on the coronavirus crisis but on mismanagement and dangerous policy choices, including wasted resources on unnecessary interviews, reallocation of resources to train unqualified Customs and Border Protection officers on asylum cases, burdensome requests for evidence, and attempts to divert resources to enforcement efforts instead of its mission to process immigration benefits. Under the Trump administration there are allegations that USCIS has become solely a “vetting agency,”[5] instead of an immigration benefits agency, which has resulted in a culture of creating barriers to the immigration process that has been fostered at the agency.

According to USCIS’ Deputy Director for Policy[6], “Without congressional action before August 3, USCIS will need to furlough over 13,000 staff members, which will have tremendous negative impacts on [its] mission administering our nation's lawful immigration system…” The funding Congress is being asked to provide is “needed to pay [USCIS’] dedicated staff and ensure [USCIS] operations continue uninterrupted during these unprecedented times.” 

We must act now to protect USCIS public servants, who have already begun to receive furlough notices[7], and are facing the reality of unemployment in a time of economic insecurity caused by the global pandemic. It is important for their livelihood, but also for the livelihood of the communities they serve.

USCIS provides essential services to our country, such as adjudicating employment and family immigrant visa petitions, naturalization applications, and asylum and refugee applications. It is also critical to economic growth and the ability of working men, women, and families from achieving their American dream, whether U.S. citizen or immigrant. As the nation sees an increased need for essential workers–many of whom are immigrants, in the agricultural, childcare, hospitality and transportation spaces–we could see some of these essential workers[8] lose their lawful immigration status because USCIS does not have the capacity to process their renewal filings in a timely manner.

Additionally, existing backlogs in processing immigration applications will be further exacerbated, resulting in U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents being further kept apart from their family members, thousands of people awaiting in limbo for naturalization ceremonies, U.S. businesses unable to hire the talent they need to succeed, and, most severely, freezing protections for individuals such as asylum seekers, those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and those granted Temporary Protected Status.

For these very reasons, we must both fund USCIS but also put sideboards on the funding we provide to ensure that we are never again put in the unenviable position of rescuing an agency that we intentionally crafted to be primarily self-sufficient.

While we can and should further debate the exact guardrails necessary to ensure USCIS responsibility and accountability in the coming days, we strongly encourage you to consider the following general suggestions now:

  • Require USCIS to implement measures that generate new revenue without new or increased fees on under-resourced families or asylum seekers and facilitate increased filing of applications and petitions.
  • Ensure the availability of fee waivers[9]. Via proposed rule, USCIS has proposed to eliminate fee waivers for low-income applicants, which includes green card holders applying for citizenship.
  • Prohibit USCIS from transferring funding to enforcement agencies, or from using Congress’ funding within USCIS on redundant anti-fraud programs, such as the tip form for reporting suspected fraud, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement already manages, so as to ensure that USCIS remains focused on its service-oriented mission.
  • Require USCIS to adopt measures to increase transparency, fiscal responsibility and efficiency[10], such as prohibiting USCIS from using funds to require in-person interviews when not necessary or denying cases without first issuing requests for evidence or notices of intent to deny or revoke to provide an opportunity to cure any deficiencies. Additionally, require USCIS to first take measures to reverse recent policy choices and practices[11] that have been cost-inefficient.
  • Require USCIS to provide remote naturalization ceremonies to accommodate people who have been on a lengthy legal pathway to U.S. Citizenship during the coronavirus crisis.

In light of the above, we request that we – as Members of Congress – unite by giving USCIS emergency funding and enacting appropriate parameters as a condition of those funds in the next coronavirus relief package. In order to ensure that thousands of U.S. citizens do not lose their public service jobs at USCIS, millions of U.S. citizens are not kept apart from their family members, U.S. employers are not denied the workers essential to their success, and the neediest are not refused life-saving protections.

Sincerely,

 

[1] USCIS “Deputy Director for Policy Statement on USCIS’ Fiscal Outlook” 2020 https://www.uscis.gov/news/news-releases/deputy-director-policy-statement-uscis-fiscal-outlook

2 CSPAN “House Judiciary Subcommittee in Immigration and Citizenship hearing” 2019 https://www.c-span.org/video/?462672-1/house-judiciary-subcommittee-examines-immigration-processing-delays

3 Federal Register “USCIS Fee Schedule and Changes to Certain Other Immigration Benefit Request Requirements” DHS 2019  https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/12/09/2019-26521/us-citizenship-and-immigration-services-fee-schedule-and-changes-to-certain-other-immigration

4 USCIS “Deputy Director for Policy Statement on USCIS’ Fiscal Outlook” 2020 https://www.uscis.gov/news/news-releases/deputy-director-policy-statement-uscis-fiscal-outlook

5 Wall Street Journal “Ken Cuccinelli Takes Reins of Immigration Agency With Focus on Migrant Vetting” Louise Radnofsky 2019 https://www.wsj.com/articles/ken-cuccinelli-takes-reins-of-immigration-agency-with-focus-on-migrant-vetting-11562410802

6 USCIS “Deputy Director for Policy Statement on USCIS’ Fiscal Outlook” 2020 https://www.uscis.gov/news/news-releases/deputy-director-policy-statement-uscis-fiscal-outlook

7 USCIS “DHS Letter to Appropriations Committee Char Shelby” DHS 2020 https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/files/DHS_letter.pdf

8 Courthouse News “Immigrants Work Essential Jobs on Front Lines of Coronavirus Crisis” Cameron Langford 2020 https://www.courthousenews.com/immigrants-work-essential-jobs-on-front-lines-of-coronavirus-crisis/

9 NALEO Educational Fund “Making Citizenship Affordable” 2017 https://naleo.org/PRA/Natz%20Fee%20Action%20Alert%2011-2019/9_5_19%20-%20Fee%20Waiver%20Fact%20Sheet%20-%203%20-%202.pdf

10 CLINIC “CLINIC’s Written Testimony to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on immigration and Citizenship” 2019 https://cliniclegal.org/resources/clinics-written-testimony-house-judiciary-committees-subcommittee-immigration-and

11 AILA and the American Immigration Council Send Letter to Congressional Appropriators Regarding USCIS Emergency Funding Request” 2020 https://www.aila.org/advo-media/whats-happening-in-congress/congressional-updates/aila-and-aic-letter-to-congressional-appropriators