On May 15, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suddenly announced that without a $1.2 billion bailout from Congress, it will soon need to furlough over 10,000 of its employees because of projected budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. USCIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is in charge of managing much of the legal immigration system, including applications for permanent residency (“green cards”), U.S. citizenship, asylum, work permits, and various temporary immigration statuses. The agency, which is almost entirely funded by user fees, claims that it will see a decrease in application volume of more than 60 percent from the time it was forced to close its field offices in late March through the end of September 2020.
USCIS claims that in order to stay solvent, Congress must immediately make a supplemental appropriation of $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars, which would eventually be paid back to the Treasury through a new 10 percent surcharge on all existing user fees. This surcharge would come on top of a dramatic 21 percent fee hike that USCIS is close to finalizing via regulation.
According to USCIS, the culprit is entirely COVID-19, not internal mismanagement, but publicly available data tell a different story.
Based solely on the data that USCIS publishes—however incomplete and difficult to synthesize—it is clear that its financial troubles long pre-date the COVID-19 crisis. The agency has made several questionable policy decisions over the past three and a half years, including failing to implement a timely and moderate fee increase, as well as initiating a surge of red tape and staff hiring that likely led USCIS from surplus to insolvency.