- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2020

The federal agency that handles citizenship and other legal immigration applications warned Congress late last week that it’s running out of money during the coronavirus crisis and will soon have to take “drastic actions” unless Congress comes up with $1.2 billion in emergency cash.

While most federal agencies have weathered the pandemic without any financial hiccups, thanks to Capitol Hill’s willingness to borrow money, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is an exception.

Almost all of USCIS’s money comes from fees charged for processing citizenship and other legal visas applications — and that work has severely dried up during the crisis, slashing the agency’s income in half.

Joseph Edlow, deputy director for policy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told employees in a memo Friday that they’ve already done some belt-tightening and are working on a new fee schedule that will bring in more money.

But it won’t be enough and Congress will have to pony up.

“USCIS will exhaust its funding this summer, and without congressional intervention, we risk not being able to make payroll and will have to take drastic actions to keep the agency afloat,” Mr. Edlow wrote.

The top Democrat who oversees the agency’s money in the House didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the top Republican in the Senate who oversees USCIS’s budget, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, said she will look at the matter.

“We are working daily with the Department of Homeland Security to meet the funding needs they have today to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “Meanwhile, we are trying to understand what the next few days and weeks will look like, particularly in light of the imbalanced workloads in some sectors, as well as the reliance on fees that right now are nonexistent.”

USCIS said the money would be a loan, and taxpayers could be repaid in the future by a 10% surcharge on applications and petitions. Mr. Edlow said the agency thought it important not to add to the deficit or leave taxpayers in the lurch over the long term.

Congress has just begun to work on another round of funding for governments, with House Democrats on Friday passing a $3 trillion bill.

That legislation, which does not include the cash infusion for USCIS, is considered a dead letter in the GOP-controlled Senate. But it was clearing the House at the same time USCIS was issuing its extraordinary warning.

While a number of federal agencies charge user fees for their work, most of them also get significant taxpayer funding, and they have not suffered over the last couple of months.

More than 95% of USCIS’s budget, though, is funded by fees paid by immigrants and visa seekers when they apply for benefits. When the agency’s workload plummeted during the pandemic, revenue also fell.

Without some new source of money, USCIS believes it will run out of money by July 13, and will have to furlough employees.

The agency says it needs $571.2 million for pay and operating expenses for the rest of fiscal year 2020, and wants $650 million more in carryover money in case the crisis extends into 2021. Even that will only maintain “limited operations,” the agency told Congress.

USCIS is fee-funded because there’s long been a consensus that immigrants and businesses that want to bring in guest workers should pay their own way, rather than force taxpayers to foot the bill.

And that structure is usually a boon. During government shutdowns, when most other federal departments and agencies either shutter or continue working without pay, USCIS is able to operate as usual because it operates somewhat like a business and its money comes directly from fees.

During coronavirus, the equation is reversed and, like businesses that depend on income, USCIS is facing a cash crunch.

USCIS does get about 4% of its funding each year from taxpayers to operate E-Verify, a voluntary program that lets businesses check to make sure new hires are legally able to work in the U.S.

And the agency has gotten direct infusions of cash from Congress before, including in the early 2000s, when a massive backlog of cases had built up and lawmakers sent over taxpayer money to staff up and cut into the backlog.

Every couple of years USCIS reviews its fees and can adjust them to bring in more income.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill in recent years have complained about the increases, and suggested ending the fee-funding structure. That would make taxpayers subsidize immigrants, but it would also give Congress more control over the agency’s decisions.

The Washington Times reached out Friday evening to the chairs of the House and Senate subcommittees that oversee USCIS’s spending, but neither office had an immediate comment.

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