The massive immigrant legalization program that Democrats plan to include in their upcoming budget would overwhelm the government’s citizenship agency, adding millions of new cases to an agency that is already running well above its red line, according to a secret internal study.
That secret study estimated an 11 million man-hour shortage at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2020, according to data reviewed by The Washington Times.
That was before the pandemic slammed the agency, further skewing its finances, and before the Biden administration added to its burden with a relaxed approach to border jumpers and plans to expand refugee admissions.
“If anything, it got worse this past year,” one agency employee said. “Now they want to throw an amnesty on top of that.”
Several past directors of USCIS say the agency cannot handle a major amnesty right now — either the full legalization of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that President Biden proposed or a relatively smaller legalization of “Dreamers,” farmworkers and others that could cover more than 4 million people.
At a minimum, it would take 18 months to get up to speed, hire enough people to process applications and prepare to sniff out a fraud tsunami. Two years would be even better, said Emilio T. Gonzalez, who ran the agency under President George W. Bush and studied the lessons of the 1986 Reagan amnesty.
“We kicked it around, and we needed 18 months to two years,” he told The Times.
Joseph Edlow, who served as acting director under President Trump, recently delivered a similar evaluation directly to Congress. He told lawmakers that the agency, which he left six months ago, isn’t ready for mass legalization.
“The agency would simply not be able to handle it,” he told senators. “That agency needs to continue to grow financially before it can handle something like this. I just don’t think the resources are there in place right now to be able to handle that.”
USCIS, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, handles legal immigration. It is one of the rare agencies in the federal government that operates almost exclusively without taxpayer money and relies instead on the service fees it charges migrants and visitors.
That means it must balance its workload with the fees it charges to hire enough people to process all the applications.
The secret staffing study, completed early last year under the Trump administration, projected that USCIS would receive 15 million applications in fiscal 2020. That worked out to about 18.8 million total adjudication hours.
The agency was projected to have enough staffing for only about 40% of the work, leaving a shortfall of 11 million man-hours of work.
USCIS didn’t dispute the numbers from the study. In a brief statement, the agency said it will do whatever Congress directs it to do.
“USCIS stands ready to execute any legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Biden. USCIS supports our elected officials making comprehensive immigration reform a priority,” said Joseph R. Sowers, an agency spokesman.
The path to citizenship under debate on Capitol Hill would go straight through USCIS.
The agency would likely receive millions of initial applications to enroll in the amnesty program and later get more waves of applications as people become eligible for more permanent status.
There is no way to add that kind of workload to USCIS without severe consequences, said John A. Zadrozny, who served as the agency’s chief of staff in the Trump era. He said it would either shift workers and create bigger backlogs for legal immigrants or short-circuit reviews of the amnesty cases.
“What you’ll probably see happen is the internal pressure to keep things moving will lead to sloppy applications being approved,” said Mr. Zadrozny, now director of the Center for Homeland Security and Immigration at the America First Policy Institute,
USCIS is already under stress, Mr. Zadrozny said. The Biden administration’s more lenient approach to asylum applications at the border will add tens of thousands of complex cases to the workload. Asylum applications don’t require fees, so the agency will scramble for money to process them.
Mr. Biden wants to quadruple the number of refugees admitted this year and double it next year. Those cases, too, are fee-free and will place more strain on the agency, Mr. Zadrozny said.
Meanwhile, the agency has a backlog of citizenship naturalization cases.
Mr. Edlow said the agency also has a “front-log” problem. Thousands of applications are sitting in USCIS mailboxes waiting to be opened and put into the system. He said that backlog needs to be resolved before another major workload is added.
“Certainly, there needs to be a significant lead time that allows the agency to prepare and potentially allows Congress to provide emergency funding for the agency to hire additional adjudicators,” Mr. Edlow told The Times.
“Even with the preparation we would have to do, I don’t think the agency has the financial ability to staff up in the way it would have to in order to handle these requests in the time they would have unless you were to move everybody off current caseloads,” he said.
Rosemary Jenks, vice president of NumbersUSA, has tracked USCIS for years. She said the agency’s problems are well known on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, lawmakers regularly report complaints from constituents about the backlog at USCIS. Add an amnesty, and those complaints will soar, she said.
“And who pays the price? The people who are trying to do it legally, who did everything right, who are paying the fees. The people who are trying to naturalize, who mostly came in legally and are trying to become American citizens, their applications slow down. So everyone who did it the right way gets delayed,” Ms. Jenks said.
USCIS got a small taste of the problem during the Obama years.
When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was created, hundreds of thousands of applications flowed into the agency without an effective work plan. Personnel was moved to handle the Dreamers’ cases, creating backlogs elsewhere.
The last time the U.S. had a mass amnesty, in 1986, fraud was rampant.
Border Patrol agents saw border jumpers with pockets stuffed with old gas station receipts and photocopies of utility bills dating from years earlier.
They soon realized that the migrants hoped to use the documents to backdate their presence in the U.S. to meet the 1982 deadline for eligibility.
A New York Times piece in 1989 said the amnesty amounted to “fraud on a huge scale,” and postmortem reviews that found one-quarter of all cases were bogus.
Congress could spend taxpayer money to give USCIS a boost in hiring to help prepare for an amnesty, which would break with the philosophy that immigrants should pay for the privilege of coming to the U.S.
The idea appeals to some Democrats on Capitol Hill, who say the price is worth the legalization of long-term immigrants.
Mr. Gonzalez, the former USCIS director who studied the 1986 amnesty, said the right way to do it this time would be for USCIS to create an entire new branch of operations dedicated to the program.
That means, he said, a deputy director to oversee it, separate office space for receiving and working the applications, and defined funding that doesn’t take siphon from the agency’s other operations. In-person interviews and strict background and fraud checks would be mandatory.
“You now have USCIS doing its day job, and then you’re going to require it to take care of all these millions of people that will fall under the one or two new legalization categories. You can’t do both of them at the same time. You’ve got to eat and sleep,” he said.
He said some migrants might complain about the burdens, such as the need to travel to one of the new offices, but it’s a small price to pay for what they would be getting.
“If you have to drive there and spend the night, oh well. It goes back to this is a grace, not a right. Legalizing illegal immigrants is never a right. It is a grace,” he said.