USCIS, which handles green cards for permanent legal residents, manages citizenship procedures and vets visa applicants, depends for its operating revenue almost entirely on fees from “customers,” meaning immigrants. The business model Mr. Trump’s administration devised for USCIS was a recipe for financial ruin: deplete income by driving away fee-paying applicants and pile up expenses by hiring thousands of new employees. Little wonder that after 3 1/2 years, USCIS has gone hat in hand to Congress, pleading for $1.2 billion. Without the extra funds — for an agency meant to be self-sufficient — USCIS has said more than 13,000 employees, of some 20,000 total workers, will be furloughed without pay indefinitely, starting next month.
Under Mr. Trump, USCIS has become a model of dysfunction. Perversely, that may be just fine with a White House that has been intent on deterring not only undocumented migrants but legal immigrants as well. It has done the latter largely through a matrix of policies that have made the agency much less a means by which immigrants are connected with U.S. employers and reconnected with relatives living in this country, and much more a nearly impassable obstacle course.
Well before the pandemic, applications for an array of immigrant categories plummeted as word spread that layers of new rules and vetting were driving down approval rates, and even trivial mistakes such as typos in applications would trigger rejections. In-person interviews were added as requirements for applicants who had not previously needed them, including skilled workers already in the country who needed visa extensions. Green card applications slumped in the Trump administration’s first two years and might fall further as applicants learn they would be disqualified if deemed likely to need public benefits such as subsidized housing or food stamps. The pandemic accelerated the agency’s death spiral as revenue derived from fees has dropped by half since March.
The effect of a mass furlough of USCIS staff would be to throw even more grit into the bureaucratic gears, further slowing approvals for work permits, including for high-skilled immigrants, and green cards. If the administration is intent on breaking the nation’s complex immigration machinery, which has supplied U.S. businesses with the talent and energy of millions of employees, it is on the right path.
Employers are alarmed at the prospect of such a breakdown, with good reason. Virtually every sector of the country’s economy depends on a steady supply of immigrants, which in itself is justification for Congress to reassess USCIS’s fee-based model. Immigrants have provided the spark, drive and muscle that have driven growth and success in the United States since its founding. Given their contributions, it seems a gratuitous burden that they are also required to shoulder the cost of their admission to the country.