United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for issuing US green cards, temporary visas and granting US citizenship, is looking to improve its services, despite having no detailed plan on how to pay for improvements. The news comes less than a year after USCIS was faced with having to furlough approximately 70% of its workforce.
A 14-page document sent to the White House by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on April 21, outlines plans to ‘enhance procedures for becoming a naturalized US citizen’ among other things. USCIS, which operates under the DHS, relies entirely on US visa and immigration fees to sustain itself with no funding from Congress.
The plan also describes short- and long-term changes that reflect a realistic assessment of USCIS’ aspirations and limitations, including the possibility of more video interviews instead of in-person meetings with applicants. Plans suggest that authorized USCIS employees could administer US citizenship oaths rather than federal judges.
USCIS is also looking to promote online filing to reduce processing times. The DHS stated that all of the measures to improve US immigration services within USCIS can be done without congressional approval, where an overall consensus on US immigration has proven to be elusive for years.
Combined, the plans signal a complete breakaway from the focus of the Trump administration, which sought to combat fraud and reduce US immigration benefits, including attempts to scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme.
Meanwhile, the plans also seek to give potential US citizens ‘the benefit of the doubt’. For example, an immigrant who mistakenly registers to vote before officially becoming a US citizen, won’t be penalised. Under current rules, doing so could see a person face criminal charges and deportation, ending any hope of securing US citizenship.
The issue of immigrants registering to vote prior to becoming US citizens has been in the spotlight recently amid a surge in automatic voter registration, and former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in 2016.
Voter registration program Illinois
In 2020, the automatic voter registration program in Illinois mistakenly registered hundreds of people who said that they weren’t US citizens. At least one of those people reportedly voted.
In the 14-page document sent to the White House, the DHS states: “USCIS aims to improve the citizenship process to encourage full participation in our civic life and democracy and to deliver services effectively and efficiently.”
No cost estimates
However, USCIS has provided no cost estimates to rollout the plans, but some of the measures suggested seem to be designed to save money and improve operational efficiency. The agency did acknowledge that the success of its plans hinges on its long-term financial stability, which includes seeking funding from Congress.
Under the plans, USCIS will continue to subsidize the cost of becoming a US citizen to make the process available to as many people as possible, with the guidelines of fee waivers being consistent and transparent the agency said.
The 14-page document said: “The [Biden] administration recognizes that the cost of fees can be a barrier to certain individuals filing for naturalization and is committed to providing affordable naturalizations.”
“This will mean that other fee-paying applicants and petitioners will continue to subsidize this policy decision to ensure full cost recovery,” the document added.
USCIS on brink of ruin
Amid the start of the coronavirus outbreak, USCIS was on the brink of ruin as fees from US visa and immigration applications dried up as the world came to a standstill. Last summer, the agency threatened more than 13,000 staff furloughs in an effort to tackle a $1.26 billion shortfall.
Following a tense few months, the agency managed to avoid having to resort to furloughs and said it didn’t need the money and would end the financial year with a surplus.
The USCIS’ acting director at the time, Joseph Edlow, said that US visa and immigration application fees ‘rebounded more than expected’ as offices reopened and contracts were reviewed for cost savings.
The initial projected shortfall raised serious questions about how the agency’s finances had deteriorated so quickly, but rapidly recovered. Ur Jaddou, the woman nominated by Biden to lead the agency, had questions.
Jaddou, who served as the agency’s chief council under the Obama administration, said back in October 2020 that USCIS was in need of a financial audit. She questioned some of the changes to USCIS under the Trump administration, including the justification for a major expansion of an anti-fraud unit.
She also questioned a requirement, since scrapped by Biden, to reject US visa and immigration applications where sections had been left blank.
Jaddou said: “It really is a bunch of bureaucratic red tape,” when describing USCIS’ financial woes.
In October 2020, USCIS was set to increase visa and immigration application fees by an average of 20%. However, a federal judge blocked the increases just days before they were set to take effect.
The fee for a citizenship application was set to rise from $640 to $1,170, while fee waivers were largely set to be scrapped for people who could not afford the new application fee.
Other fees Trump sought to impose, but were subsequently blocked, included a first-ever fee of $50 to apply for asylum in the US. Meanwhile, asylum seekers would have to pay a further $550 to secure work authorization and $30 for the collection of biometric information.
By the end of the Trump administration, the processing time for a US citizenship application increased from less than eight months to more than a year.
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