United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is reportedly ‘running at a revenue loss’, according to the Homeland Security Ombudsman. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, USCIS, which is funded entirely by US visa and immigration application fees, was on the brink of collapse and sought a billion dollar bailout from the Trump government.
In an annual report to Congress, the Homeland Security Ombudsman said: “USCIS is still running at a revenue loss, which will lead to continuing backlogs and lengthening processing times. Without a significant infusion of funding, whether from customer filings or from Congress, USCIS is not well-placed to overcome its fiscal challenges.”
USCIS spending cuts made in 2020 in order to avoid having to furlough some 13,000 staff – including a hiring freeze - have also compromised the immigration agency financially said the Ombudsman.
“While the agency recently lifted its hiring freeze, it will take months, if not years, to re-achieve full staffing,” the Ombudsman said.
The Ombudsman’s report partly attributed the agency’s financial struggles to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced USCIS to close its offices for several months last year before resuming operations at a reduced capacity.
Consequently, the processing times for US visa applications and renewals have stretched to months, leaving many foreign nationals working in the US with gaps in their work authorization.
In October, Congress did authorize the expansion of USCIS’ premium processing services to raise additional funds. The agency did start this expansion, which allows applicants to pay higher fees for faster adjudication, and plans to make the service available for additional benefits later this year.
However, the ombudsman’s report did say that premium processing is labour-intensive, and with USCIS currently understaffed it could cause even longer waiting times for applications in regular processing.
Earlier this month, during her confirmation hearing, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead USCIS Ur Jaddou, said that ‘tackling processing delays is her top priority’.
She also vowed to resolve the agency’s financial woes, saying that one of her most immediate responsibilities, if confirmed, will be to ‘return the agency to firm solvency’.
Meanwhile in May, USCIS chief of staff, Felicia Escobar Carrillo, said that the agency will likely have to increase visa and immigration application fees. Under the Trump administration, USCIS did try to increase fees across the board, including a first-ever charge to apply for asylum. However, the policy was quashed in court.
Amid the USCIS’ financial problems, House Democrats have suggested providing the agency with $474.5 million to address backlogs in the chamber’s Homeland Security spending bill for the fiscal year 2022.
However, the ombudsman recommended that USCIS move away from its fee-based funding model, which it said carries ‘too much unpredictability to accurately predict future revenue’.
The Ombudsman’s report stated: “Policy changes or pandemics, or both, can occur in any given fee cycle. This lack of predictability not only undercuts its ability to perform its essential mission, it also can have an adverse impact on employee retention and morale.”
According to the Ombudsman, to save more money, the agency should continue to offer some of the flexible measures it implemented amid the pandemic, even as the US begins to emerge out of lockdown. The Ombudsman recommended waiving fingerprinting requirements and continuing with remote interviews.
USCIS has yet to reply to the Ombudsman’s findings.
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