The government expects so many applications for President Obama’s new deportation amnesty that it’s seeking a contractor just to open the new mail and enter the forms into the system, with plans to operate two shifts from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every workday to keep up with the anticipated workload.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency charged with approving the applications, expects more than 800,000 applications in just the first two and a half months, or a 70 percent surge compared to last year’s total intake for the entire agency. Over the first 18 or so months, the agency will process more than 4 million pieces of mail related to the larger part of the new amnesty, according to contracting documents.
All applications must be opened in the presence of two workers, one with “secret” security clearance, in order to maintain integrity of the applications, and mail may need to be X-rayed for security reasons, the documents show.
“USCIS is building the additional capacity needed to begin accepting requests for upcoming immigration initiatives,” the agency said in a statement to The Washington Times. “USCIS is on pace to have several hundred employees on board and trained by mid-May, which will ensure every case processed by USCIS receives a thorough, case-by-case review under our guidelines.”
But one former USCIS executive testified to Congress last week that the agency is going to be overwhelmed by the volume of applications and the truncated approval process.
“It’s going to be hard to tell how much fraud there is,” said Luke Bellocchi, a former deputy ombudsman for USCIS, as he testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.
He said the agency is likely to use “abbreviated” criminal records checks that won’t delve too deeply into applicants’ backgrounds, and said the 2012 amnesty — known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — which was a test run for the broader amnesty Mr. Obama announced last year, accepted “pretty much any kind of documentation” to establish their identity.
That could be an even bigger problem for the new amnesty, known as DAPA — or Deferred Action for Parental Accountability — which applies to illegal immigrants who arrived as adults and who could have committed crimes in their home countries that wouldn’t show up on the abbreviated criminal checks.
The administration says it is confident in its ability to make a case-by-case decision on each application, and says it expects half of the 3.85 million people eligible for the new amnesty to apply once the application period opens in the middle of May.
Still, that means the government expects 149,388 applications in May, another 324,488 applications in June and 350,242 in July, before the numbers drop to 221,087 in August and 139,331 in September.
USCIS has also said it plans to issue a contract for printing millions of work permits that will go to the illegal immigrants granted amnesty from deportation under the new policies.
Bo Cooper, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service employee, testified to the Senate last week that the immigration service is used to ebbs and flows in applications and should be able to handle this one.
“It’s a large-scale program that will pose challenges, but the tools I believe are there,” he said, saying he believes the penalties already in the law for trying to defraud the government on immigration applications will deter bad actors.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the program will cost between $324 million and $484 million over the next three years, with the money to come from fees paid by the applicants. The administration has promised that none of the money will come from taxpayers.
But the contract documents show the agency is planning to spend money on the program well before it begins collecting any fees. Late last year USCIS advertised for about 1,000 job openings at the Crystal City, Virginia, facility that will process the DAPA applications, including adjudicators, managers and fraud unit personnel.
The new contract documents say there will also be space for 250 contract workers to receive the applications at the facility use the X-ray machines to scan the packages as they come in. The agency said that was standard practice.
Kenneth Palinkas, president of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, said he was worried that the agency is cutting the training for the new employees from six weeks to five, and said he fears USCIS will try out a new method of adjudicating cases by having different officers specialize in a part of an application. He said that could mean there is no single officer who has a complete view of an application.
“How you could have proper adjudications this way is beyond my scope of reason,” Mr. Palinkas said. “They want to cleric-alize the job, and they’re really not concerned about whether the documents entered are fraudulent or not. They just want to push the papers along.”
Spurred in part by those fears, House Republicans have passed a spending bill that would halt the new amnesty by denying USCIS the ability to spend money on the project. The language is included in the 2015 homeland security funding bill, which must be passed by Feb. 27 or else the agency runs out of money.
Senate Democrats are conducting a filibuster of the bill.
Most employees would continue working because their jobs are deemed essential, but they would not be paid until the department is funded, and new changes, such as additional money for White House security, wouldn’t be implemented.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s done all he can to try to break Democrats’ filibuster, and it’s up to the House GOP to take the next step.
“It’s clearly stuck in the Senate. We can’t get on it; we can’t offer amendments to it. And the next step is obviously up to the House,” Mr. McConnell said.
But last week House Speaker John A. Boehner said the House has passed a bill, and it’s up to the Senate to send something back.
Democrats, whose filibuster has left the GOP in the tricky situation, watched the Republican struggle with bemusement, and shot down potential Republican escape routes such as passing another stopgap funding bill to keep Homeland Security running in the short term.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said a stopgap bill would cost states some grant money and could lead to tens of thousands of furloughs of nonessential employees.
“It’s not good for protecting our homeland,” the Nevada Democrat said.